Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Men of action

All right, Cleveland fans, turn on your jealousy alarms .... now.

The wheeling and dealing has begun, and not just in baseball.

Baseball's trading deadline is at 4 p.m. today, and while the Indians hold their cards to their vests following Friday's Kenny Lofton deal, other teams have been picking up steam.

Monday, the Mets acquired second baseman Luis Castillo from the Twins, the Phillies traded for starting pitcher Kyle Lohse, and in what will likely be the deadline blockbuster of the year, the Braves and Rangers agreed in principle to trade Mark Teixeira for a package that includes rookie catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

But don't get too frustrated with GM Mark Shapiro and his crew just yet. Of any year since the Shapiro-led rebuilding project began, the Indians' brass knows that this is the year the iron is hot.

Chances are, of any year in recent history, this will be the year Team Shapiro tries to add a significant piece at the trade deadline, particularly as the Indians limp to the end of July having lost five of their last seven series.

If I had to handicap it, I'd say the most likely target is Royals reliever Octavio Dotel. The Indians were interested in him this past winter, but nothing ever materialized. He has a history of arm trouble, and has become something of a journeyman in his career. But, as with any relief pitcher, his services are desired by many different teams, so the Indians will have to overpay. Start with Ben Francisco, and go from there.

Other names to watch include Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen, Nationals relievers Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch, and Rangers set-up man Akinori Otsuka.

If you are dreaming a little dream about the Rangers' Eric Gagne or the Diamondbacks' Jose Valverde pitching for the Tribe, I'd file it under "don't hold your breath." Arizona really has no incentive to trade 28-year-old Valverde, who already has 31 saves, and Gagne can veto a trade to Cleveland, which he would almost certainly do because Joe Borowski is the undisputed closer here.

Think the Indians would be willing to move Borowski to a setup role to get Gagne? Remember, this is a team that has kept Mike Rouse as a utility infielder all season, despite the fact that all signs point to Rouse batting below .100 by season's end.

KG to the Celtics?

The trades aren't just limited to baseball. Several media outlets are reporting that Kevin Garnett is on the verge of being traded to the Boston Celtics for a slew of players and draft picks, including Al Jefferson.

Before we Cavs fans toss our cookies, before we read too many Bill Simmons "Boston rules!" columns (which started today), remember that at least it wasn't a team on the Cavs' level, like Chicago or Detroit, angling for Garnett.

If this trade goes down, it will undoubtedly push Boston to the upper echelons of the East, which says as much about the conference as it does about Garnett.

Right off the bat, the Celtics will have acquired two things the defending Eastern Conference champions do not have: A dominant low-post threat in Garnett and a lights-out three-point shooter in Ray Allen. Combine that with Paul Pierce, and that is one heck of a triumvirate to lead a team, especially in the East, where it doesn't take much to play leapfrog.

But before you crown a Garnett-led Celtics squad the 2008 Eastern Conference champs, remember that Boston will still have a woeful lack of depth with or without Garnett, which puts them in the same predicament as most of the East.

I'd go so far as to say the Cavs, despite all their roster flaws, are still deeper than most teams in the East. And, even with Allen and Pierce, Garnett still won't have a Dwyane Wade-figure to team with as Shaq does. A couple of solid veterans who can score, yes, but neither is the difference-maker Wade is.

So, in a nutshell, the Celtics would be much better with Garnett, but they aren't going to suddenly become the alpha dog in the East.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Training camp '07: The secondary

Synopsis

You think the offensive line has had the worst luck of any Browns unit? Close, but no cigar.

The O-line is a major contender in the bad karma arena, but even they get nudged out by the secondary.

In the past year, while LeCharles Bentley was attempting to recover from one ruptured patellar tendon, Gary Baxter was recovering from two ruptured patellar tendons, sustained on the same play versus the Broncos last October.

The other starting cornerback, Leigh Bodden, is a tease of Lee Suggs proportions who can stick like glue to Chad Johnson, but only when he's healthy, which isn't often.

The cornerbacks' inability to stay healthy magnifies the frustration for fans (and I'm sure the coaches) because this could be one of the deepest and most talented areas of the team at full strength.

In the wake of the injury to Baxter, Daven Holly came out of nowhere and played well enough to warrant another look in training camp. Justin Hamilton pulled a Mason Unck, performing well enough on special teams to get a longer look in defensive sets. Sean Jones and Brodney Pool began to stabilize the safety positions, though it remains to be seen whether either will morph into a skull-cracking hitter who dissuades receivers from venturing over the middle.

The offseason

The loss of safety Brian Russell is arguably the biggest personnel blow the Browns received this spring. When Russell left, he took the closest thing the Browns had to an intimidating presence in the defensive backfield with him. Now the pressure is on Jones and Pool to fill that role.

Phil Savage stoked the coals of the cornerback corps once again this offseason, adding Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald in the draft, and signing nine-year veteran Kenny Wright in free agency.

After burning this year's second-rounder to acquire the 22nd pick and draft Brady Quinn, Savage traded back into the second round to draft Eric Wright from UNLV. Wright transferred to UNLV from USC due to some off-the-field issues, and many football writers believe he would have been a Top 15 pick had he entered the draft out of Pete Carroll's program.

Needless to say, a lot is riding on Wright to become the shutdown corner who can smother the opponent's top receiver each week.

The major players

CB Gary Baxter: No player has ever recovered from two ruptured knee tendons to have a productive post-injury career. Baxter is trying to break new ground, and it looks like he just might do it.

An offseason of intense rehabbing has gotten Baxter back to the field. Barring any setbacks, it appears likely he'll see game action at some point during the preseason.

There's no telling on what level he'll be able to contribute, but like Bentley, if he can give anything, it will be a major boost to his unit.

CB Leigh Bodden: Who can stop 85? Bodden can stop 85. Bodden's reputation as a Chad Johnson stopper is preceding him, and got him a starting gig.

He's not an elite cornerback, but if Eric Wright develops the way Savage and Romeo Crennel think he will, a starting corner pair of Wright and Bodden seems capable of sticking around here for a while, to say the least.

CB Eric Wright: He just might start right away. He's easily the most athletic player in the secondary.

CB Daven Holly: Carpe diem. Holly, a virtual unknown at this time last year, took the baton and ran with it after Baxter's injury. Now he's looking at major playing time in '07. Still, if he's starting games, it's not good, because it means everyone listed above is either injured or underperforming.

CB Kenny Wright: A veteran of 56 NFL starts, Wright can add some very real depth to the cornerback situation. As important is the leadership Baxter and Wright can provide to the young guys in the secondary.

S Sean Jones: A Butch Davis holdover, Jones had a breakout season a year ago, starting all 16 games and tying for the team lead with five interceptions. He has stud potential as a safety, but with only 32 games under his belt, we need to see more.

S Brodney Pool: It's shine time for Pool, who will be a full-time starter this year. Shine or watch Savage draft your potential replacement next year.

S Jusitn Hamilton: The safety position lacks significant depth, so the opportunity for someone like Hamilton to jump in and see playing time is there. Actually, the Browns need Hamilton to step up, because the rest of the safety unit is either inexperienced or unfamiliar with the Browns' system.

Up next: Special teams, coaching and the front office

Friday, July 27, 2007

A triumphant return

Kenny Lofton returned to the Indians' lineup for the first time since 2001 on Friday night, after coming over in a trade with the Texas Rangers earlier in the day.

Batting second, sandwiched between Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez, he looked like he hadn't been away at all.

His stat line: 3-for-5 with an RBI. His trio of hits included a third-inning bunt single that loaded the bases, helped pave the way for a six-run inning, and made us all remember how electrifying Lofton's speed can be, how much of an ignition switch he can provide for an offense.

Short of bringing in a superstar power bat like Ken Griffey Jr., the easiest way to ramp up the production of your offense is to acquire a guy like Lofton who can get on base a number of different ways, then harass the pitcher into making mistakes with the omnipresent threat of a stolen base.

I know you don't want to mess with the lineup too much, Eric Wedge, but please try leading off with Lofton and batting Sizemore third for just one game. See what happens when Lofton is allowed to set the table and Sizemore is placed in an RBI spot in the lineup. You might be pleasantly surprised.

If you need any more convincing, I'm sure someone in the Indians organization can get you Mike Hargrove's phone number.
P.S. If you'd like some more quality reading material on the return of Kenny Lofton, check this out.

One year ago today

July 27, 2006:

Browns training camp opened. LeCharles Bentley ruptured his patellar tendon on the first contact drill. In that instant, the 2006 Browns season was wasted. The psychological blow of watching the team's top free agent signing leave the field in a cart was too much to withstand.

Result: The Browns went 4-12. The job security of Charlie Frye and Romeo Crennel started to dissolve. The Browns began camp as a young team starting to turn the corner toward respectability, but were thrown back into a state of disarray.

All in the time it took for Bentley to yell "No!", grab his knee and hit the ground.

July 27, 2007:
Browns training camp opens. Eric Steinbach and Joe Thomas are the latest attempt to stabilize the offensive line. Thomas and cornerback Eric Wright signed contracts yesterday, leaving Brady Quinn as the only unsigned draft pick.

Crennel has possibly one month of the regular season to show that he can improve this team dramatically, or he might lose his job.

Bentley has weathered a yearlong storm no one would want to face. Four surgeries on his badly-damaged knee, with a fifth scheduled but not performed. Two staph infections, which reached leg-threatening and life-threatening proportions. This month, he was cleared to play football in a day many thought would never come.

His ability to help the team is still questionable, and according to The Plain Dealer, Bentley might be viewed by Browns management as something of a mismatched part. GM Phil Savage hasn't said much publicly about Bentley's comeback attempt, and it appears he never received a playbook to study the schemes of new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.

Bentley will start camp on the active/physically unable to perform list, along with Gary Baxter, who is recovering from a patellar tendon rupture in each knee, and Kellen Winslow Jr., who is recovering from microfracture surgery on his knee. All three are hoping to be ready in time for the season opener Sept. 9 against the arch-rival Steelers.

This afternoon, we find out if the past 12 months have changed anything for Cleveland's most unfortunate sports franchise, or if the beat goes on.

If anyone leaves the field in the back of a cart today, we'll likely have our answer.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Training camp '07: The linebackers

Synopsis

If there was any nugget of unchecked optimism to be taken from the 2006 Browns, it was the linebacker corps.

In what was unquestionably the most immediate return on investment yielded by Browns draft picks since the team's return, '06 first-rounder Kamerion Wimbley and second-rounder D'Qwell Jackson stepped into the starting lineup and immediately asserted themselves as budding stars.

Wimbley set a Browns rookie record with 11 sacks, second among NFL rookies, staking his claim as one of the game's rising pass rushing talents. Jackson finished second on the team with 115 tackles, including an impressive 16 tackles in a loss to Carolina, according to the team's official site. Tackles are not kept as an official NFL statistic.

Willie McGinest, though past his prime as an elite pass rusher, added four sacks in 13 starts. Andra Davis led the team with 133 tackles.

The backups were capable, including Chaun Thompson, Matt Stewart, Leon Williams, Mason Unck and David McMillan.

Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage know that the success of a 3-4 defensive alignment depends highly on the talent and versatility of its linebackers. To that end, the job the Browns' leaders did in putting this unit together offers more than a glimmer of hope for the future.

The offseason

For good measure, Savage signed former Texan Antwan Peek in March. Peek, an outside linebacker who started all 16 games for Houston in 2005, is expected to challenge McGinest for his starting job. At this point, however, it's hard to see a seasoned veteran and potential future hall-of-famer like McGinest surrendering his job to a guy with 110 career tackles.

Consider Peek an insurance policy in case he suddenly turns into the Donyell Marshall of the Browns.

The major players

OLB Kamerion Wimbley: What does he do for an encore? Hopefully it involves playing in Hawaii in February. If Savage's capacity as an offensive talent evaluator is called into question for the rest of his career, Wimbley is a sparkling example of Savage's ability to draft top defensive talent.

ILB D'Qwell Jackson: He did what inside linebackers are supposed to do in a 3-4 set: Make tons of tackles. Over the years, Browns middle linebackers have gotten a kind of reputation for being masters of the cheap tackle, dragging a running back down after a 14-yard gain. But with Jackson and Andra Davis manning the middle, I think the heart of the defense is in good shape for a while.

ILB Andra Davis: One of the few players to survive the post-Butch Davis purge, he isn't flashy, but he makes plays. Surrounded by better talent, he might be able to improve his own game now.

OLB Willie McGinest: For a has-been, he looked pretty good a year ago. No one is expecting him to dominate anymore. The wisdom he imparts on Wimbley is far more valuable.

OLB Antwan Peek: He's been a part-timer for all but one season of his career. If McGinest goes down, it's either going to be the opportunity Peek has been searching for, or it's going to expose him as a career bench player.

ILB Chaun Thompson: Another Butch Davis holdover, he is the small and fast type of player favored by the former Browns coach. Now a few years older and a few pounds beefier, he might have started last year if not for the emergence of Jackson. But this team is at its best if Thompson is providing depth off the bench.

ILB Matt Stewart: Another kind of undersized bench player. But, much like Thompson and Peek, he has starts on his resume and has the talent to be at least adequate in a starting role. Playing for the notoriously short-handed Browns, that's a big plus.

ILB Leon Williams: He played his way into the foreground at the tail end of last season, including a 17-tackle performance in an otherwise-forgettable game against Tampa Bay. Again, it's the ongoing mantra: Depth, depth, depth.

ILB Mason Unck: The caveman-sounding name is perfect for a guy who likes to get out and crack some skulls. Not terribly big or terribly fast, he has hustled enough on special teams to warrant a longer look from the coaching staff. Coaches will always go for the scrappy guy who plays the game at 100 miles per hour. That's Unck.

Up next: The secondary

Of toilets and wicked pissahs

It smells like stale urine, and it isn't the team for once

The picture above illustrates what happens when 1,500 toilets simultaneously have their water-level valves, or "flushometers," fail in an NFL stadium.

The home team needs to have their entire locker room gutted and remodeled less than a month before the first preseason game.

Apparently, when the sewers backed up into Cleveland Browns Stadium during a recent Kenny Chesney concert, the culprit wasn't a broken water main as originally reported. Officials discovered that the flushometers of virtually every toilet in the stadium had become clogged with rust and mineral deposits from the ancient Cleveland sewer system.

When a heavy load was placed on the sewer infrastructure of the stadium, it finally gave way, causing the toilets to back up into the bowels (no pun intended) of the stadium.

Of course, this means that the Browns locker room, on the stadium's sublevel, was turned into a giant culture of bacteria and who knows what other microbial goodness. Even with a complete remodeling of the facilities, maybe the Browns should just pull a John Havlicek and put their uniforms on in the hotel prior to coming over to the stadium.

It's either that, or risk having the Browns become the first team in league history to forfeit a game because the entire roster came down with a staph infection.

Fenway Park West

You think fan support doesn't matter to players?

Just wait until the Red Sox come to town. After winning the World Series in 2004, Ben Affleck and Jimmy Fallon helped Boston become the cool team all the other teams wanted to be like. Celebrity fans, self-fawning books like Bill Simmons' "Now I Can Die in Peace," and TV specials celebrating the eternal loyalty of Red Sox fans helped Boston gather a nationwide army of fair-weather fans the likes of which haven't been seen since the Yankees last won the World Series seven years ago.

The majority of the fans who have been showing up for this week's series against the Red Sox are undoubtedly an actual plague that has descended on Cleveland from the east. But I'm guessing a certain number of the Jacobs Field fans that have been yelling "Youuuuuuu!" when Kevin Youkilis comes to bat will be back at The Jake wearing Yankee gear beginning August 10.

It doesn't matter who wins or loses. All that matters is how many Indians fans threatened to fight them outside Gate B after the game.

Regardless, the players are noticing that the majority of noise coming from the stands is in support of the Red Sox. It's pointless to call out Tribe fans with a "suck it up, get out to the yard and support your team" rant. Cleveland fans have voted with their attendance already. They will only support this team to a very limited point until something drastic happens, like a run deep into October.

So if you don't like having "Papi, hit it wicked haaaaahd!" drowning out the "Let's go Pronk!" chants, my advice is to do what you've already been doing and stay away from Jacobs Field until the Red Sox leave town. Red Sox fans are a beast you can only fight with grandstand attrition, by snapping up the tickets before they can get them. Indians fans lost that battle a long time ago.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Training camp '07: The defensive line

Synopsis

Bob Golic might as well have suited up for the Browns last year.

The defensive line was that old.

With 38-year-old Ted Washington, 33-year-old Orpheus Roye and 28-year-old Alvin McKinley starting in Romeo Crennel's revamped 3-4 scheme, soon-to-be 50-something Golic would have fit right in.

The results were about what you would have expected: No interior pass rush, minimal run-stopping penetration and a glaring lack of being able to recover and make tackles after getting blown off the line on the snap.

The defensive front's advanced age and obscene lack of athleticism were the primary reasons why, once again, the Browns had trouble containing opponents' rushing games.

2007 looks like a transitional year for the defensive line, as Crennel and Phil Savage attempt to shift from big and slow to smaller and quicker. It's probably going to take a few years and a couple of high draft picks to resolve the line's identity crisis.

The offseason

Unfortunately, the oldest and slowest parts of the line -- Washington and Roye -- are still in position to start. Savage added former Texan and Titan Robaire Smith through free agency to plug the spot vacated by Alvin McKinley, who became the latest Cleveland defensive lineman to bolt for Denver.

Shaun Smith was also added to the mix via free agency. The ex-Cowboys, Bengals, Cardinals and Saints journeyman figures to add a smidgen of depth to the nose tackle position, where 2006 draft pick Babatunde Oshinowo had been the only true backup. Oshinowo spent almost all of '06 on the practice squad.

The Browns selected Chase Pittman in the seventh round. At 6'-5" and 275, he has the dimensions to stick in the NFL, but unless he was a diamond in the rough unearthed by Savage, don't expect him to add any actual depth this year.

The major players

DT Orpheus Roye: He's been among the most productive free agent signings the Browns have made since returning to the league. By itself, his age, now 34, wouldn't be as big of an issue. When paired with the borderline-ancient Ted Washington, it becomes a pressing concern.

We've likely seen Roye's most productive years in a Browns uniform come and go. Within the next year or two, finding a new anchor for the defensive line is going to be paramount.

NT Ted Washington: The Browns Web site lists Washington at 375 pounds. If that's actually the case, Washington joined NutriSystem For Men when we weren't looking, because when we last left Washington in early January, he was 375 plus Verne Troyer in a weighted vest.

If Washington was surrounded by hyper-athletic, explosively-fast pass rushers and run-stoppers, he'd likely still be effective as a huge boulder in the middle clogging the rushing game. Surrounded by other tortoises like himself, he just looks like ... well, another tortoise.

DT Robaire Smith: With all the hype heaped on the Browns' offensive acquisitions this spring, the signing of Smith kind of flew under the radar. But Smith might become the biggest difference-maker on the defensive front this season.

The former sixth-round pick of the Titans is a self-made starter with 17 career sacks and back-to-back 100-tackle seasons in 2004 and '05 with the Texans. With an aging D-line and another first-round draft pick now two years away, Smith might end up becoming a very important part of the Browns defense in the coming years.

DT Shaun Smith: Even the Browns don't seem to know a lot about this guy. His player profile on the team's official site can't even agree on how many games he's started.

DT Simon Fraser: With flowing red locks and a college history that includes scarlet and gray, Fraser couldn't help but become a fan favorite after signing with the Browns several years ago.

The good news for Buckeye/Brown lovers is that Fraser's role increased last year, and he figures to be a major bench piece for the defensive line this year. If he continues to impress, he might eventually start. He has the size (6'-6" and 300 pounds) to do it.

By the way, you knew he has a university named after him, right?

DT Ethan Kelly: You have to admire a guy with the pluck to survive in this league after appearing in just one game in his first two years, getting cut by the team that drafted him (New England) then playing his way into three starts with Cleveland in two years.

Kelly is like the Browns D-line answer to the Indians' Jason Michaels: He might not be uber-talented, but he hustles and plays hard. Coaches love that.

NT Babatunde Oshinowo: He's a project player who has some work to do, both on his game and in the weight room, but I love the fact that the Browns have a backup nose tackle who is A) working on a master's degree in electrical engineering at Stanford and B) has parents who loved him enough to name him Babatunde Oluwasegun Temitope Oluwakorede Adisa Oshinowo, Jr.

Up next: The linebackers

Sunday, July 22, 2007

What to do with Cliff Lee?

Cliff Lee is a guy I want to root for.

After sitting through entire Indians seasons that never featured a fulltime left-handed starter, Lee and C.C. Sabathia were a breath of fresh air as the 2000s dawned. Finally, the Indians would be able to neutralize lefty power hitters and force switch hitters over to their normally-weaker right side.

Finally, teams would be penalized for stacking their lineups with lefty pop against the Indians. The days when the Yankees could face Cleveland and bat Paul O'Neill, switch-hitting Bernie Williams and Tino Martinez in order without giving it a second thought were over.

But that fresh air is turning sour. Lee is struggling mightily and hasn't pitched well on any consistent basis since 2005. Whether they want to admit it or not, the Indians are reaching a decision time with Lee.

He was given a multiyear contract extension last year, when he battled his way to a 14-11 record with a 4.40 ERA. The ERA was a little high, but it was the third consecutive year he reached 14 wins, which justified the extension at the time.

This year, with Lee sitting at 5-7 with a 5.95 ERA following a brutal first inning in a loss to Texas on Saturday, his track record is starting to look decidedly poor once you get past wins and losses.

Since becoming a fulltime member of the Indians rotation in 2004, Lee's hits allowed have gone up every year, from 188 in '04 to 194 in '05, and then jumping to 224 last year. This year, he's allowed 96 hits in 15 starts. Assuming 30 starts, that projects his '07 hits allowed to 192. Assuming last year's 33 starts, Lee will easily eclipse 200 hits allowed again this year.

Lee's earned runs allowed are on pace for a dramatic spike this year. He has so far allowed 58 earned runs, putting him on pace to surrender 116 earned runs in 30 starts, way up from last year's total of 98 and his '05 total of 85. Factor in the 108 earned runs he allowed in '04, and that would mean, without a major shift of fortune in the second half of this season, Lee will have surrendered 100 earned runs in two of his first four seasons as a fulltime starter, and come up two runs shy in a third season.

His ERA is the proof: 5.43 in 33 starts in '04, 3.79 in 32 starts in '05, 4.40 in 33 starts in '06 and 5.95 in 15 starts this year.

His 2005 season, when he went 18-5 and ended up on the outskirts of Cy Young Award consideration, appears to be an aberration at this point.

With three and a half seasons as a fulltime starter under his belt, Lee is developing trends that have become the characteristics of his game: He gives up a lot of hits, and consequently a lot of runs. He has trouble staying away from big innings where he gives up hits and runs in bunches. For some reason, this year the big innings seem to happen early. Lee has allowed hitters to bat .390 within his first 15 pitches per start.

Few things deflate a team like getting dropped into a 5-0 hole before the second inning as happened to the Indians on Saturday.

And that's perhaps the most compelling reason for the Indians to examine other options for Lee instead of giving him the ball every fifth day. The Indians have losing streaks of three and four games this year when Lee takes the mound. They had a winning streak of four Lee starts from June 13 to July 1, but instead of using it to propel himself to a second-half comeback, Lee tossed a six-run, six-hit dud in a loss in Toronto right before the all-star break, and the Indians haven't won a Lee start since.

And that's really been the story of Lee's baseball life since the start of last season: The inability to sustain anything good for long periods. Right now, as much as I don't want to say it, Lee is hurting his team and allowing him to stay in the rotation is probably going to lead to more losses for the Tribe.

Jason Stanford is the long man the bullpen. He might not be a cure-all, but the further Lee ventures into the abyss, the more appealing a Stanford-Lee role swap looks.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Training camp '07: The receivers

Synopsis

If the Browns' offense had a crown jewel heading into 2006, it was supposed to be the receiver corps.

The pass-catchers were highlighted by a pair of Top 10 draft picks in Kellen Winslow Jr. and Braylon Edwards. Both were rebounding quickly from serious knee injuries and expected to carry the load.

Adding depth were veteran speedster Dennis Northcutt and Joe Jurevicius, a sure-handed local boy who had signed as a free agent. The corps also boasted tight end Steve Heiden -- a proficient short-yardage receiver -- and Joshua Cribbs, who proved to be an electrifying playmaker as a kickoff returner.

The Browns' cache of receivers should have been the envy of any team not named the Indianapolis Colts. But like just about everything else involving the Browns offense last year, the receivers never really found a groove.

While Winslow and Heiden flourished as one of the better tight-end tandems in the league, the wide receivers were plagued by dropped passes all season. Northcutt and Edwards were the primary offenders, but even Jurevicius wasn't immune.

The result was a Browns offense that was virtually incapable of making a big play. Charlie Frye's questionable throwing arm and receivers' inability to haul in passes consistently short-circuited Cleveland drives on many occasions.

As with just about every other aspect of the Browns' offense, the receiver corps was sent back to the drawing board this offseason, though most knowledgeable football people seem to agree that the receiving talent is there for the Browns to have a very good passing game. If nothing else, incoming offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski knows that, and will try to build an offense that showcases the talents of Winslow and Edwards.

The offseason

Because the Browns burned two first-round picks on Winslow and Edwards in the past four drafts, there really isn't much to report here. Turnover was minimal.

Northcutt is gone to Jacksonville after dropping a few too many passes to justify a new contract from the Browns. Tim Carter arrived from the Giants in the Reuben Droughns trade and should battle for time at the third and fourth receiver slots. Syndric Steptoe, a 5'-9" speedster, was selected in the seventh round in April and figures to be groomed as a punt returner.

If healthy, Edwards is a lock for the first starting receiver slot. Jurevicius and second-year receiver Travis Wilson appear to be the frontrunners for the second starting receiver slot. Carter could move up the depth chart in a hurry if either Jurevicius or Wilson struggle.

The major players

TE Kellen Winslow Jr.: After missing all of 2005 recovering from a knee injury suffered in his now-infamous motorcycle accident, Winslow bounced back in a big way in 2006, leading all NFL tight ends by snatching 89 receptions for 875 yards.

Of course, it being the Browns, there was a catch. Winslow had surgery in late January to clear out loose bodies in his surgically-repaired knee. Only later did the public discover that the supposed scope job was actually microfracture surgery, a risky procedure in which tiny holes are drilled in the bones of a damaged knee joint, promoting the growth of scare tissue, which is supposed to serve as faux-cartilage.

Youth appears to help a microfracture surgery patient recover. The Phoenix Suns' Amare Stoudemire had the surgery in 2005, missed almost one full season, but showed no ill effects in bouncing back to his old form this past season. Winslow, like Stoudemire, is 24, but plays a far more violent game for a living.

Time will tell how Winslow bounces back. As it is, he'll probably have his workload scaled back in training camp. If Winslow is sidelined at all this season, it will hamper the Browns offense in a big way.

WR Braylon Edwards: He's an incredible athlete with first-rate playmaking ability .... provided he can A) hold onto the ball and B) not let off-the-field ego struggles get in the way of his game.

In 2006, Edwards proved to be more adept at running his mouth than running out his routes or holding onto the ball. It appears that Edwards has maturity issues and an inability to handle adversity well, which is something coach Romeo Crennel has to focus on from day one of camp. Edwards is one more gum-flapping, pass-dropping season away from jeopardizing his standing as a core member of the Browns' future.

TE Steve Heiden: With all the tumult that has surrounded the Browns offense the past five years, Heiden has quietly become the Browns' most reliable receiver over that span. Since arriving in a 2002 trade with San Diego, Heiden has amassed 1,176 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns.

His production spiked in 2005 with 43 receptions for 401 yards, and remained high last year with 36 receptions for 249 yards.

With a former tight ends coach now serving as the Browns offensive coordinator, Heiden figures to continue as a major supporting cast member in Cleveland.

WR Joe Jurevicius: So far, Jurevicius has made it to the Super Bowl with every prior team he's played for -- the Giants, Buccaneers and Seahawks. If he wants to make it 4-for-4 with his hometown team, he might need some patience and a couple of swigs from the fountain of youth.

Jurevicius is entering his 11th NFL season at age 32. He's still a good supplementary player, but he's starting to enter the portion of his career where injuries will become more and more of a concern. Bruised ribs provided a glancing blow to the offense last year, but losing Jurevicius to a lengthier injury could rob the receiver unit of valuable veteran experience.

Because of Winslow's mircofracture surgery and Edwards' flakiness, Jurevicius is among the most important supporting cast players on the team. A lot rides on his ability to suit up and play every week.

WR Travis Wilson: He declared himself the best receiver in the 2006 draft, despite the fact the Browns took him in the third round. But if you make statements like that, you need to go out and back up the words with actions.

In '06, Wilson played in four games, finishing with two catches for 32 yards.

In '07, Wilson will need to live up to his heady assertion far more than in his rookie year. With Northcutt gone, Wilson is one Edwards or Jurevicius injury away from a major role in the offense. At some point this year, it's highly likely Wilson will be pressed into put-up-or-shut-up time.

But then again, when have you ever known an NFL wide receiver to shut up?

WR Joshua Cribbs: His athleticism is tantalizing. He has the explosive legs to do a lot with only a little room to work. But as of right now, Cribbs remains a wild card, a player who doesn't cleanly fit into any role on the offense.

But if you are over six feet tall with the ability to outrun tacklers in the open field, teams will find a use for you. Cribbs fans need not worry; they will see plenty of the former Kent State quarterback this year.

WR Tim Carter: He's played in 31 of 32 games for the Giants the past two years, so at least we know he has a history of good health. Totals of 22 receptions and 253 yards don't hurt either. Carter is a dark horse who could see some significant playing time if enough things bounce his way.

Of course if Carter is playing a lot, it probably means Edwards, Jurevicius and Wilson are on the sideline for one reason or another, so it's best to hope that Carter's role doesn't increase out of desperation.

Up next: The defensive line

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Training camp '07: The offensive line

Synopsis

The story of the 2006 Browns offensive line can be divided into two parts: Before LeCharles Bentley destroyed his knee and after LeCharles Bentley destroyed his knee.

Before Bentley's injury on the first contact drill of training camp, the Browns' offensive line looked like it had turned the corner. The free agency additions of two-time Pro Bowler Bentley and tackle Kevin Shaffer were supposed to stabilize a line that had been characteristically bad with few exceptions since the team returned to the league in 1999.

Then Bentley went down, the center position became a mess that wasn't cleaned up until the Browns traded for Hank Fraley, and the line was worse than ever.

But maybe the rumors of the rebirth of the Browns' O-line were greatly exaggerated to begin with. Even without Bentley's injury, the line would have still been lacking.

As it turns out, the true weakness of the Browns' line wasn't the center position. It was the guard position. Flanking the center spot were Joe Andruzzi and Cosey Coleman. Combined with Fraley, the trio might have been the slowest and least-athletic interior line in the league, a problem exacerbated when facing the blitz-happy defenses of the Steelers and Ravens.

The offseason

For the second straight offseason, Browns GM Phil Savage called in the heavy artillery to address the offensive line. But even last offseason paled in comparison to the overhaul Savage performed this spring.

Andruzzi and Coleman are gone. Replacing them is a younger and more athletic group.

Once again, Savage snapped up the best available lineman on the free agent market, signing left guard Eric Steinbach away from the Bengals. He also added guard Seth McKinney, who figures to start on the right side.

Savage complimented his free agent signings by using the third overall pick in April's draft on Wisconsin tackle Joe Thomas. A top-flight free agent signing and top-three draft pick will now be protecting the quarterback's blindside, so Savage at least gets high marks for effort.

Adding to the intrigue is a potential comeback by Bentley, who is trying to rebound from four knee surgeries, two of them to clear out staph infections that almost cost him his leg -- and if media reports are correct, possibly his life.

But even if Bentley makes it back to the gridiron, it would be wise to believe that anything he could give the Browns would be gravy at this point.

The major players

LT Joe Thomas: A beast of a lineman who reportedly has the footwork to set him apart from the Robert Gallerys of the world. There is little doubt that if he gets into camp anywhere close to on time, he's starting. But if he holds out and it lingers until the third preseason game, the job might fall back to Kevin Shaffer.

LG Eric Steinbach: A self-made elite lineman who was lured away from a division rival. He's been in the league since 2002, so in the aftermath of Bentley's inury, you'll excuse us if, somewhere in the back of our mind, we're wondering if any of his weight-bearing joints are ticking time bombs. But if he stays healthy, he's a Grade-A signing.

C Hank Fraley: After losing Bentley and stumbling though what seemed like about a dozen starting centers, the last-minute pickup of Fraley was a nice save by Savage. Fraley didn't blow anyone away, but considering his limited athleticism, recent history of injuries and the fact that he's closing in on 30, he held his own for the entire season. His grit earned him a four-year extension from the Browns.

It would be wise to assume that Fraley is going to be this team's starting center for the foreseeable future.

RG Seth McKinney: He has two seasons (2004 and '05) under his belt as a full-time starter with the Dolphins. He missed all of last season following surgery to repair a neck disc, so it's been about 19 months since he's seen NFL game action. He'll likely be given first crack at the right guard's job, but his effectiveness is hard to gauge at this point.

RG Ryan Tucker: After losing the final part of last season while seeking treatment for an undisclosed mental disorder, Tucker told The Plain Dealer in March that he's ready to play again. If he can still play at a high level, it appears he'll start at his old job.

Tucker has been the closest thing to a rock that the Browns offensive line has had the past five years, but at the age of 32, there is reason to believe he is on the decline. Of the five projected O-line starters, his future appears to be the murkiest. Shaffer is waiting in the wings should Tucker falter.

T Kevin Shaffer: After the Browns drafted Thomas, rumors begin swirling that Shaffer wanted to be traded if he wasn't going to start. One news report even said a deal was in place to trade Shaffer to the Giants, but it fell through at the last minute.

Shaffer emerged days later to debunk the trade talk. But you'd have to believe that he isn't going to go quietly to the bench. Shaffer gives the Browns some solid depth at the tackle position, but also poses the threat of becoming a locker-room malcontent if Thomas and Tucker hold onto both starting jobs.

C LeCharles Bentley: All we can do is hope. If he can come back and give the Browns anything this year, go to church and give 10 percent, because you will have witnessed an act of God.

Up next: The receivers

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Training camp '07: The backfield

Time just won't stand still, will it?

It just won't give us a chance to sit back and bask in the glow of a triumphant Browns offseason.

We can't sit back and count our acquisitions like so many unhatched eggs. Joe Thomas. Brady Quinn. Eric Steinbach. Jamal Lewis.

Nope. They have to suit up and play and wreck that pristine mental picture of a fully-loaded young team ready to take the league by storm.

In less than two weeks, training camp will commence and we will be knee-deep in the muck of rebuilding once again, facing the harsh reality that the Browns are still a couple of time-warps away from being competitive with their divisional foes.

With that in mind, I begin my position-by-position training camp previews of the 2007 Cleveland Browns. Remember, hope is a good thing for Browns fans -- in moderation.

The backfield

Synopsis

Heading into 2006, this was supposed to be one of the budding strengths of the team. Charlie Frye had his first go-around as a starting NFL quarterback and graded high in toughness and leadership. The Browns' brass was so confident in Frye's ability to lead a team that GM Phil Savage didn't bother bringing in a veteran mentor in the aftermath of trading Trent Dilfer.

The running back corps was supposed to be in good hands after Reuben Droughns became the first 1,000-yard rusher for the Browns in two decades in 2005. Again, the backup situation was placed in the hands of youngsters Jerome Harrison and Jason Wright.

Alas, things went awry, as they often have for the Browns. Frye wasn't ready to lead a team for a whole season and looked overmatched on many occasions. Droughns fought through injuries and was a shell of his '05 self. By season's end, coach Romeo Crennel was in full-on experimentation mode, throwing Derek Anderson against the wall to see if he would stick and starting Wright at tailback.

The situations at quarterback and running back comprised arguably the most disappointing aspect of the '06 squad. And that's saying something on a 4-12 team.

The offseason

Savage went right to work on the backfield, signing former Raven rusher Jamal Lewis as a free agent and pulling off a major draft-day trade with Dallas to draft Brady Quinn. Lewis is a short-term bandage at feature back. Quinn is a long-term plan at QB. Neither figures to pull the '07 offense onto his back and carry it.

The major players

QB Brady Quinn: A rookie who might be facing a long and difficult holdout considering where he was drafted (22) and where most teams projected him going (between 2 and 9). He probably wouldn't have had a shot to start the Sept. 9 opener against Pittsburgh with a full helping of training camp, but if he holds out well into August, he's going to get buried in Crennel's doghouse from the get-go.

In a nutshell: Don't expect to see much out of Quinn between now and the start of November.

QB Charlie Frye: The incumbent starter who will likely hold onto his job. There are still questions about whether he can adequately lead an NFL offense, as well there should be. Too often, the game simply moved too fast for Frye last year, and he was flustered into making shoot-first-think-later mistakes.

If Frye is going to survive as a starter in this league, he has to figure out a way to adapt to the speed and ferocity of the NFL. It's miles away from the Mid-American Conference.

QB Derek Anderson: An intriguing wild card. at 6'-6" and possessing a strong throwing arm, Anderson has all the physical traits of an NFL starter, but he's been a project player since coming over from the Ravens two years ago. If Frye really struggles in the preseason, Anderson could be given a chance to win the starting job. He was spotty as a late-season injury replacement a year ago.

RB Jamal Lewis: He's approaching 30 and entering his ninth NFL season, which makes him old in running back years. If Lewis stays reasonably healthy, he'll be an upgrade over Droughns. But Lewis' punishing running style is very much like Droughns. He runs through tackles, not around them.

Lewis can still be a pretty good feature back when healthy. But don't bet the house that the Browns are going to get 16 starts out of him this year.

RB Jason Wright: He's somewhat undersized and more of a changeup back, but he still brings a dimension of speed and shiftiness that the Browns' backfield sorely lacks. At 5'-10" and about 215 pounds, he's not built like a tank, but he's also not a featherweight.

If Wright has to start at tailback, head for the hills. If he can come off the bench as a change of pace behind Lewis, the Browns' tailback situation might actually be halfway decent.

RB Jerome Harrison: He's small and quick. He had a dynamite preseason last year that got everyone talking. But unless the offensive line gives him room to run, he's not going to be much of a factor.

FB Lawrence Vickers: His primary competition in camp consists of J.R. Niklos and Charles Ali. Terelle Smith is long-gone. He's no longer playing for fullback-obsessed Maurice Carthon, who has been replaced at offensive coordinator by tight end-obsessed Rob Chudzinski. So no one outside of Berea really knows what purpose Vickers is going to serve on the '07 Browns. He'll likely be the only fullback they carry.

Up next: The offensive line

Friday, July 13, 2007

Revenge of Dolan's pocketbook

Listen to the mockingbird....

"Cheap, cheap .... cheap, cheap .... cheap, cheap"

For seven years, many Indians fans saw to it that the Dolan family wallet the most famously infamous leather-bound object in Ohio. A fan base used to the sellout-inflated ownership of Dick Jacobs and the swashbuckling GM style of John Hart had a tough time adjusting to the payroll-paring, close-to-the-vest philosophy of Larry Dolan, Paul Dolan and Mark Shapiro.

We ground our teeth when David Justice was traded to the Yankees in 2000. We pouted when Sandy Alomar was cast adrift that winter. We stomped around when Roberto Alomar was sent to the Mets a year later. We howled when Bartolo Colon was traded to the Expos for Lee Stevens and the Three Stooges in 2002. ("Grady who? The only Grady I know is from Sanford and Son.")

And some tried their best to swear off the Tribe completely when lovable Omar Vizquel was allowed to sign with the Giants three years ago.

If sandwich boards were more readily available, many Indians fans would have walked around downtown declaring "The end is near."

We were going back to "real" Indians baseball with the Dolans at the helm. "Real" as in the Indians of Vernon Stouffer, Gabe Paul and Nick Mileti. The financially-threadbare Indians who drew 3,000 fans a night to Municipal Stadium, almost left town on several occasions and were the embodiment of a losing organization for four decades.

After all, Larry Dolan was the putz who got the sucker end of the deal when Jacobs decided to sell the Indians at the height of their profitability, wasn't he? Based on that, we thought he probably had the business sense of a three-toed sloth and would inevitably manage the Indians back into baseball's dungeon.

But fast forward to July 2007 .... Could it be that Dolan has heard the cries of his people?

Normally, I'd say complaining about how an owner runs his team is wasted breath. The owner is filthy rich and can afford the ivory tower in which he lives. Fans can call up radio shows and rant, bring signs to the ballpark, even stage walkouts like Orioles fans did a year ago and Pirates fans were threatening to do this year. In most cases, it's not going to make one bit of difference in how the owner runs his team.

But Larry Dolan is a born-and-raised Clevelander who grew up an Indians fan. Like Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, he fancies himself as a man of the people, the type of owner who eats the same hot dogs the fans eat.

Word gets around quickly in this town, so no matter how many floors Dolan would put in any ivory tower he chose to build, he'd still hear the word on the street. And the word has been that Dolan is cheap. He won't spend to put a winner on the field. He's content with mediocrity. He'll let his best players leave, or order Shapiro to pawn them off for prospects, because he doesn't want to pay them what they're worth.

The fans have given Dolan's ownership a rousing vote of "no confidence" by staying away from Jacobs Field in droves. Like Jhonny Peralta in 2005, Dolan was incessantly compared to his predecessor and found lacking, justifiably or not.

Maybe it was all enough to make Dolan want to prove his critics wrong in a big way.

This week, Dolan ponied up $57 million to keep Travis Hafner in Cleveland potentially through the 2013 season, when he will be 36. As of now, the $13 million he will make in 2011 and '12 will be the highest annual salary in Indians history.

A sum of $57 million is a lot to commit to a designated hitter. There is a school of thought that says a capable designated hitter can be found for far less than what the Indians will pay Pronk.

It's true, with an arthritic elbow that prevents him from playing in the field every day, Hafner will need to put up monster numbers every year -- in the .300/40 HR/120 RBI range -- to earn his new lofty salary.

But considering that the Indians don't have a hitter anywhere in their farm system who projects as being able to produce anything close to Hafner-type numbers in the majors, it's a wise investment. A Hafner replacement wasn't going to come out of the Tribe farm system.

But while this was a signing that made sense for the Indians from a baseball standpoint, for Dolan, it meant something more. For Dolan, this signing was a statement that he's is going to back up the hard work Shapiro and his baseball people have put in to rebuilding the Indians.

The Hafner extension is something entirely different from the extensions handed to Jhonny Peralta, Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee and Jake Westbrook over the past two years. Hafner is an elite player in the prime of his career -- the exact type of player Dolan supposedly wouldn't fork over the money to keep.

Maybe it wasn't any one particular thing that steeled Dolan's resolve to lose the "cheap" tag, but whatever has happened, he is spending with a purpose. He is spending to prove that the plan he, Shapiro and the rest of the Tribe's big thinkers first concocted five years ago can work, and is working.

Of course, the biggest fish, all 290-some-odd pounds of him, is still out there to be fried. How Dolan handles the C.C. Sabathia negotiations will likely become the true test in the eyes of fans. If C.C. walks or gets pawned off for prospects between now and the start of the 2009 season, Dolan is going to be right back on the smear list in Cleveland, and the Hafner signing will be dismissed as a $57 million token offering to appease the fans when the real prize walks away.

But if Dolan and Shapiro can get C.C. signed to an extension, we all have to shut our mouths. At that point, the evidence will be indisputable: Dolan gets it, even if the Indians never add a Magglio Ordonez or Gary Sheffield to the fold the way the Tigers have.

When you have a good thing going in baseball, your first job as an owner or GM is to keep the pieces you have. That's how you build a stable, long-lasting foundation.

That's how a middle-market team battles the money monsters on the coasts.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Today was a good day

"Call up the homies and I'm asking y'all
Which court are y'all playing basketball?
Get me on the court and I'm trouble
Last week f**ked around and got a triple-double
Freaking ni**as everyway like MJ
I can't believe, today was a good day"

--Ice Cube

Darko Milicic is the gift that keeps on giving to the Cavaliers.

First, the Pistons passed on Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to take Milicic, the modern generation's Sam Bowie. I don't know about you, but I'm glad I don't have to find out the answer, "What would have happened had the Pistons drafted Chris Bosh?"

A Detroit dynasty, that's probably what. A team that would have absorbed the loss of Ben Wallace, no problem. Instead, the pick Joe Dumars burned on Darko minutes after the Cavs took LeBron James played more than just a small role in the Cavs' ability to upset the Pistons and get to the franchise's first NBA Finals last month.

Then, Thursday, Darko did the Cavs another favor.

The Grizzlies were kicking the tires on Anderson Varejao. I was convinced that after losing out on Chicago's Andres Nocioni, the Grizzlies would become desperate to make a splash and get the attention of their fans by overpaying for the wild-haired conversation piece from the reigning Eastern Conference champions.

I was prepared to click on one of the national sports Web sites in the next few days and find out that Memphis had signed Varejao to an offer sheet in excess of $50 million, forcing Cavs GM Danny Ferry to make a very difficult decision concerning an important part of his team's bench.

Then, Darko stepped in, armed with his tempting nine-letter selling point, "potential." He only averaged 8 points and 5.5 reboundes per game last season, but Memphis bit on Darko's ever-present potential to develop into a star player -- and the fact that he was an unrestricted free agent after Orlando removed their qualifying offer to him last week -- and signed him to a three-year deal worth around $21 million.

Now, Varejao has virtually nowhere to turn to get a bloated contract. If Ferry waits it out as this fact slowly dawns on Varejao and his camp, he can get Varejao signed to a reasonable contract.

Ever since the NBA Finals ended badly, we have been collectively concentrating on what the Cavs need to do to get better this summer. But the first job is to make sure they don't backslide by losing major pieces. The events of this week have helped bring that closer to reality.

"It's ironic, I had the brew, she had the chronic
The Lakers beat the Supersonics"

I can't see the Cavs signing Derek Fisher. Apparently, Branson Wright can't either -- at least anymore.

For the past few weeks, Wright, the Plain Dealer's lukewarm-at-best Cavs beat reporter, had been reporting that Fisher was not only considering the Cavs as a destination, he was a "likely" candidate to sign with the Cavs. In a piece on potential Cavs point guards for next season, Branson gave Fisher a 45-percent chance of signing with the Cavs, his highest grade on whatever convoluted scale he used. Earl Boykins was next at 40 percent.

In Tuesday's edition however, Wright backed way off his Fisher prediction, writing that the chances of the Cavs signing Fisher are not good. Fisher might look to re-join the Lakers, where he started his career and won three titles.

This is my question: Was Fisher's supposed interest in the Cavs a product of Wright's imagination all along? As Roger Brown would say, "hmmmmm....."

Yes, the Cavs need help at point guard. Yes, the Cleveland Clinic has a world-class cancer treatment facility, which would make Cleveland an attractive destination for Fisher as his daughter battles a rare form of eye cancer. But where does it say that adds up to Fisher in a Cavs uniform?

Where does it say that Fisher even wants to sign a contract right now? Didn't he ask out of his deal with the Jazz to concentrate on getting the best treatment for his daughter? Wasn't that the whole point, that he didn't want to think about basketball at the moment?

And even if he did want to sign somewhere, what on Earth makes anyone think Fisher would want to sign with the Cavs, who already have undersized guards Larry Hughes, Eric Snow, Daniel Gibson, Shannon Brown and Damon Jones clamoring for playing time?

It is possible for Fisher to seek treatment for his daughter at the Cleveland Clinic and not play for the Cavs. I don't know if that crossed Wright's mind. Or maybe that just makes for bad copy from a basketball writer.

Note to Branson Wright: The next time you speculate, you might want to run your idea through the logic machine before you put it in the paper.

"Drunk as hell but no throwin' up
Halfway home and my pager still blowin' up
Today I didn't have to use my AK
I have to say, today was a good day"

The Akron Beacon Journal's (and sometimes-contributor to TheClevelandFan.com) Brian Windhorst has been watching Cavs summer league action in Las Vegas. Two non-roster guys to watch, he says, are Kevin Pittsnogle and Darius Rice, both lanky big men.

Of particular interest to me is Pittsnogle, the former West Virginia star, who I wanted to see the Cavs pick with their last second-rounder a year ago.

Pittsnogle might be a low-cost way to round out the big-man corps, especially since it appears there's no real place for Scot Pollard in Cleveland.

Pittsnogle is a 6'-11" big who can shoot it from the outside. He's a little soft to be a decent rebounder and he doesn't have much of a post game, but that doesn't really make him much different than Donyell Marshall, does it?

The only difference is Pittsnogle might actually make his shots.

With Big East pedigree and a skill set that can help the Cavs, my guess is Pittsnogle will get an invite to training camp in the fall. And he might have a decent shot to make the team, depending on the state of the roster three months from now.

Monday, July 09, 2007

It's NOT the economy, stupid

If you've been paying attention to the Cleveland blogosphere recently (and I bet you have if you're reading this), the lack of attendance at Tribe games has been a very popular subject.

Despite spending the majority of the season in first place, and being one game out at the all-star break, the Indians rank 25th out of 30 Major League Baseball teams in attendance, down with bottom-feeders like the Orioles and Nationals.

Everything you can probably expect out of a team with a bottom-tier payroll, the Indians have delivered -- and probably more. The Indians are not just competitive, they're contending. They're a major league-best 32-11 at home. Recently, Kelly Shoppach and Ben Francisco brought walk-off homer magic back to Jacobs Field.

The clouds are starting to lift a bit as attendance begins to rise for weekend series. The Tribe's last home game to date, July 2 against Tampa Bay, netted the biggest walk-up crowd in ballpark history. Some of that might have had to do with the Fourth of July fireworks show that night, but there were plenty of other places to watch free fireworks last week.

But attendance still lags. And the Tribe's overall ranking probably won't change much this year, even if attendance spikes in the second half. It's simply too late in the season to erase the bad numbers, like Joe Borowski's overinflated ERA.

There are several legitimate reasons why the Indians attendance is lagging. And several myths that need to be debunked, right here and now.

Legitimate reason: The Dolans are unwilling to make a big splash in free agency or through a trade.

Fans respond to sexy, marquee names. If they didn't, teams wouldn't spend outlandish sums of money to lure big-name players. While the Tigers have spent big bucks and made bold moves to land household names like Pudge Rodriguez, Kenny Rogers and Gary Sheffield, the Indians have gone with a far lower-key approach, one betting that wins will make the turnstiles click, not big names.

Wins do make the turnstiles click, but there is no substitute for landing the big player that gets the fans buzzing. That's not to say the Indians should go out tomorrow and mortgage the farm system to land Alex Rodriguez, but big players equal big fan interest.

Myth: The Cavs' playoff run diverted tons of gate revenue away from the Indians.

Not likely. As it is, Cleveland isn't a very strong basketball town. It's going to take a dynasty's worth of Cavs titles to change that, and even then, there are still going to be many middle-aged white suburbanites who simply identify more with a team of guys who look like them and talk like them playing a sport they grew up watching, as opposed to a team of heavily-tattooed, predominately black and European players playing a sport where everyone seems to be seven feet tall.

It's not prejudice. It's human nature to gravitate toward what is familiar. And in Northeast Ohio, baseball is far more familiar than basketball -- at least NBA basketball -- to many people.

What I'm getting at is, I don't think the fan bases of the Cavs and Indians overlap as much as we'd like to believe, certainly not so much that the Cavs' playoff run would suffocate the Indians at the gate. Not to mention Cavs playoff tickets were very difficult and expensive to acquire after the Nets series.

Legitimate reason: Cold weather killed the Tribe at the gate in April.

It started with an Easter weekend snowstorm that wiped out the entire opening series at Jacobs Field, then forced the next series to Milwaukee, and the remnants of winter continued to maintain an icy grip on the Tribe's home schedule throughout most of the season's first month.

Take it from someone who covered baseball at Bowling Green State University for three years: Few things in the world of spectator sports are worse than watching a baseball game in sub-freezing temperatures.

Baseball's laid-back pace is meant for warm evenings and sunny days, when it's a crime to be indoors any longer than it takes you to relieve yourself in the restroom. On days when the only thing you can think of is drinking coffee and getting indoors, the ballpark is the last place you want to be.

Until early May, the Indians simply had way too many of those kinds of days for home games. It put their attendance figures behind the 8-ball from the get-go.

Myth: The fans aren't showing up because they don't believe this team is for real.

Amazingly enough, fans usually don't cast that critical of an eye when deciding to spend their hard-earned money at a baseball game. Not even in Cleveland.

When Joe Parma Resident is considering whether to take the tribe to a Tribe game, whether the team is winning or not is actually down the list of variables that influence his decision. More important is affordability and availability of tickets and parking and what the promotion is that night -- because Junior will be crestfallen if he doesn't get that Grady Sizemore bobblehead.

When casual fans (which comprise the vast majority of fans) go to a Tribe game, they are going for the experience. They are not thinking, "Man, if Dolan would just shell out enough dough to add a decent seventh-inning middle reliever or a right-handed stick to split up Victor and Pronk, I'd be all over this team."

Don't get me wrong, winning definitely influences attendance. But winning teams don't necessarily draw because they are winning. Winning teams draw because they create an atmosphere where games are "the place to be." I think that fact gets lost on some of us more hardcore fans at times.

Legitimate reason: Some fans are still sour because the Indians parted with their favorite player(s).

This is what 40 years of non-contention can do to a town:

From 1995 to 2001, Cleveland was a Leave It To Beaver baseball town competing in a Sopranos league.

Much of what we collectively remembered about winning baseball was from a different era when the Bob Feller in your pack of bubble gum cards was going to be the same Bob Feller from start to finish. Always an Indian, and always your favorite pitcher. Barring an Earth-shattering trade like the horrible fate Rocky Colavito suffered at the hands of Frank Lane, you never had to worry about seeing your heroes suit up for the other team.

But while Cleveland's sleeping baseball giant was sawing logs, free agency entered the picture, and hero worship took on a whole new meaning.

Suddenly, heroes went to the highest bidder when their contracts came up.

In 1995, Cleveland emerged from its baseball cryostasis, and all was good for about five years. We fell in love with Manny and Jimmy, DJ, Robbie, Sandy and Little O. Albert Belle, well he was just a big jerk who smashed thermostats and chased kids down in his car, so the White Sox could have him.

But soon thereafter, June Cleaver stopped baking us cookies and started chasing us around the house with a shotgun. Manny took the money and ran. So did Jimmy. DJ was traded to save cash, Robbie because he flaked out (again). Little O and Sandy were tossed aside like used car parts.

Fans that had been brought up to embrace Tribe players as their own were given a cold splash of modern baseball. Some still haven't gotten over it, so they keep their emotional distance from the current Tribe under the blanket excuse of "What's the point? They'll all be playing somewhere else in a couple of years anyway."

Myth: It's the economy, stupid.

Two weeks ago, I was listening to one of the weekend sports yakkers on WTAM, and a caller phoned in to the show adamant that he had the real reason the Indians' attendance was lagging.

Cleveland's economy is in the garbage bin, he said. Fans can barely afford the necessities in life, so how can they afford to go to a baseball game?

There is no question the economy of Northeast Ohio has been eroding for decades. It's the cause of many problems. A lack of posteriors in the seats at Jacobs Field -- or any entertainment venue, for that matter -- is not one of them.

People spend money to be entertained whether times are lean or fat. Entertainment is one of the last things people want to part with, especially during difficult times when sports, drama, movies and music provide an escape.

If anything, Cleveland's sagging economy is an argument against sluggish attendance at Tribe games.

During the Great Depression, the story goes, some people would use their only nickel of the day to buy admission to the ballpark. If baseball hadn't been so important to people, franchises like the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Browns might not have survived the 1930s, and professional baseball would be a lot different today.

Despite nearly half a century of a downward economic spiral in this region, the Indians managed to sell out 455 straight games. The Browns sell out every game, no matter how bad the team is or how expensive the tickets are. Playhouse Square continues to operate, as does the Cleveland Orchestra, the museums at University Circle and about a half-dozen major concert venues in the area.

Say what you will about jobs leaving the area in droves and the population center of the country shifting to the Sun Belt. When it comes to empty seats in Cleveland-area entertainment venues, it's NOT the economy, stupid.

What I've been doing...

I've been neglecting my blog for about a week and a half, but I haven't been ignoring the world of sports.

You can read my Indians midterm grades for hitters here, and pitchers and management here.

With any luck, I'll have another column posted in the next day or so.