Friday, September 26, 2008

Let it be, Mr. Gilbert

Dear Mr. Gilbert,

...Or Dan. I can call you Dan, right?

I appreciate you going to bat for the city of Cleveland against all the LeBron-to-New York hysteria that flares up anytime LeBron appears in public wearing a Yankees cap, or calling New York his favorite city, or wearing anything that might resemble pinstripes.

As you so eloquently put it during Thursday's pre-training camp press conference, it is indeed a slap in the face to Cleveland and the Midwest in general. East Coast and West Coast blowhard types believe that possessing players like LeBron James is their birthright, because historically, that's been the pilgrimage destination for stars and stars-to-be.

Kareem and Wilt? They didn't toil in obscurity for their entire careers. They ended up with the Lakers. Reggie Jackson didn't stick in Oakland or Baltimore. He packed up his star and headed for The Bronx.

Throughout the history of professional sports, New York and Los Angeles have usually had the biggest say in who is a true star and who isn't. Mickey Mantle wouldn't have been "The Mick" had he played 15 seasons for the Indians. Joe DiMaggio wouldn't have been referenced in a Simon and Garfunkel song if he played most of his career for the St. Louis Browns. Even if their career stats stayed the same, they wouldn't have become icons.

So this whole LeBron-as-worldwide-icon-while-playing-in-Cleveland thing has the East Coasters perplexed. It doesn't compute. Even in this era of instantaneous communication, 24-hour cable networks and unblinking spotlights, LeBron needs New York to become bigger than life. Right? Because that's the way it's always been. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. But if you can't, you'll be lucky to find face time hawking used Fords at the local car dealer.

Sure, Mr. Gilbert, it's arrogance in its purest form whenever a national scribe pens an article predicting LeBron's departure to New York simply because New York is calling his name. You are excused for being ticked. We're all ticked. Finally, a homegrown, legitimate superstar to call our own, someone who might finally end our 44-year title drought across three teams, but is anybody happy for us? The way we were supposed to be happy for the Red Sox in 2004? The way we'll be expected to give Chicago a hearty pat on the back if the Cubs win the World Series this year?

No, everyone outside of Ohio seems to resent the fact that LeBron is here and can't wait to take him away from us. Heck, if I had a camera and a soapbox, I'd be tempted to rant, myself.

But having said all of that, Mr. Gilbert, I'd caution you to scale it back. Because if you start a war of words with the national media, you're only going to vilify yourself and make the situation worse.

Thursday, you essentially said the LeBron-to-New York and/or Brooklyn rumors are the product of bored sportswriters with too much newshole to fill. You hinted at your desire to take the LeBron rumormongers to task for their apparent anti-Cleveland slant.

You should have cut your comments at what you know, not what you suspect. A simple "I have not heard anything from LeBron or anyone closely associated with LeBron that he intends to leave the Cavs organization" would have sufficed. Maybe add in a Danny Ferry line: "I believe we have put together the kind of organization that LeBron will want to be associated with both now and in the future."

Beyond that, no comment. I know Mark Cuban has become something of a mentor to you among NBA owners, but don't become a talk-first, think-second chatterbox like him. Nothing good can come of it. All you'll do is trigger a round of reprisal columns painting you as a franchise owner who is somewhere between dense and stupid, displaying yet another reason why the Cavs organization is too backward and incompetent to deserve a talent like LeBron.

By arching your back and hissing at the national media, you're giving their words far more weight than they deserve. Trust me, Mr. Gilbert, there are plenty of John Q. Everyfans among us who will do that with little prompting. We don't need that out of the guy at the top of the Cavs organization.

Worst of all, you've potentially cued LeBron and his camp in to a valuable bargaining chip for the summer of 2010. LeBron might be the nicest guy in the world to you right now. But when it becomes all about business, LeBron and his reps will believe that they can use the media to manipulate you, should it come to that.

LeBron already uses the media to manipulate. Anyone with his ability to stay in front of the camera usually does. It's called being media-savvy.

I can't imagine, at this point, that your relationship with LeBron and his handlers would become that contentious. But as you know, Mr. Gilbert, this is a business, and you don't want to tip your hand prior to reaching the negotiating table.

To borrow a phrase you might be familiar with, it's time for you to Rise Up, Mr. Gilbert, and put the sports gossip columnists in their place. They're beneath you, they don't deserve your attention, and you shouldn't give it to them.

You've done a lot right as the Cavs owner, Mr. Gilbert. You sank a ton of money into the Cavs organization, upgrading the team facilities and fan amenities at The Q, constructing a new practice facility in Independence, ratcheting the team's payroll up to the league's second-highest. You want to win a championship, and you're putting your money where your mouth is. You've hired solid basketball guys to run the show in Ferry and Mike Brown, and you're not meddling in their affairs.

As we watch the Browns foul up hire after hire, as we watch the Indians continue to try to win a World Series with a small-market payroll, it's thrilling to know we have an owner in town who is willing to spend what it takes to bring home a title.

So please, Mr. Gilbert, don't let your mouth tarnish your fantastic actions as Cavs owner. Let it be, Mr. Gilbert. When you're standing on Public Square on a warm June afternoon, holding the NBA championship trophy alongside a giddy, dancing LeBron, surrounded by thousands of adoring fans, you'll have the last laugh.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Lerners and losing

When a team starts as poorly as the Browns have started this year, it's natural to look to the team's most visible faces for answers.

The shortcomings of Derek Anderson, Romeo Crennel and even Phil Savage have been dissected and dissolved down to the molecular level ever since the Browns' nightmarish second preseason game against the Giants. The opinions on who to blame are diverse.

In a typical scenario, a fan calls into a talk show to blame Anderson's erratic arm and poor decision-making, but is quickly interrupted by the host who points out that Anderson is only as good as the plays drawn up by Crennel and Rob Chudzinski. The show's co-host butts in and asks why Savage and his spotty draft record are off the hook.

It's become a tired tradition of Cleveland autumns over the past decade. It doesn't matter who is running the roster, who is coaching the team, who is under center. From Chris Palmer, Dwight Clark and Tim Couch to Butch Davis, Kelly Holcomb and Jeff Garcia to Crennel, Savage and Anderson, there is always plenty of blame, and excuses, to go around for why this latest season is following all the others to the city dump.

It begs the questions: Over the past decade, what has been the one constant among Browns personnel? Who has overseen it all? Who is the only person in the organization that can hold everyone else accountable?

It's none other than Randy Lerner, and his late father Al Lerner.

Before you start thinking that this is going to turn into Lerner family bash-fest, or that I'm going to speak ill of someone deceased, let me clarify a few things: I think Randy is a good person and I have much respect for him, just as I did and still do for his father.

Al Lerner was a self-made man who grew from humble beginnings to one of the moguls of the credit card industry. He was active in charitable endeavors. He was a community-minded person. I truly believed that when he won the ownership of the new Browns franchise in 1998, the team was going to be in good hands.

I didn't care what the stories said about Art Modell using Lerner's private jet to negotiate the Browns departure to Baltimore. If anything, it spoke volumes about his willingness to stick his neck out for a friend. Besides, if Lerner had denied Modell the use of his jet, chances are Modell would have found another clandestine meeting place with Baltimore officials. It wouldn't have prevented the move.

When Randy Lerner took over after his father's death in 2002, I questioned whether he would be devoted to the Browns franchise. Randy took over the team to keep it in the family, but he didn't live in Ohio full time, and while he appeared to have his head in American football, his heart gravitated toward soccer. I expected him to sell the team at some point. When he bought English Premiership club Aston Villa in 2006, I really expected him to sell the Browns. But he didn't.

Instead, Lerner became more involved, strengthening the team's ties to the past by welcoming back Browns alumni, which previous ownership regimes were less eager to do. Bernie Kosar and Jim Brown are now regulars in the owner's box at home Browns games.

So if I had to sum up the ownership of Al and Randy Lerner since 1999, I'd say they have had the best interests of the franchise and community at heart. The have understood what the Browns mean to all of northern Ohio, and have worked to repair and strengthen the bonds that were damaged by Modell's flight.

That's off the field, though. On the field, where wins and losses are the barometer of success, it has been a much more depressing story, one that needs not be retold in gory detail here.

If there has been an issue to have with the ownership of the Lerner family, it's who they have hired to try and pull the Browns out of the abyss. Try as they might, it hasn't worked, largely because most of the people they have brought in to run the show weren't proven commodities. And the hires who did have a proven track record ended up running amok.

Common logic among sports fans says the best owners hire their general mangers and coaches and get out of the way. They sign the checks, attend the games, but do not interfere in the running of the team. That's how the likes of George Steinbrenner and the Redskins' Daniel Snyder have gotten in trouble. At their worst, they treated their teams like fantasy-league playthings, hiring and firing coaches on a whim, toying around with the organizational structure, meddling in the affairs of those beneath them.

It's true. Meddling owners are usually bad owners. And the Lerners have not meddled. But maybe they've gone too far in the other direction.

When Al Lerner partnered with Carmen Policy, he took a backseat role to Policy's far more dominant personality. Policy hooked up the pipeline to San Francisco and began dousing the Browns organization in 49er red and gold. That would have been great in 1989. But this was 1999, and the Niners were well on their way to becoming a rusted hulk of the model organization first organized by Bill Walsh in the early 1980s.

Policy quickly showed that he talked a good game, and maybe he played the salary cap well enough to squeeze in a fifth Super Bowl title for the Niners in 1995, but as a starting-from-scratch organizational architect, he wasn't so good. But Lerner was Policy's guy, and Policy was Lerner's guy, so he wasn't going anywhere.

In Chris Palmer and Dwight Clark, Policy plugged in two guys who will likely never ascend so high in professional football again. Palmer returned to the coordinator ranks following his 2000 dismissal, and Clark is now completely out of football.

Policy didn't leave the organization until a year and a half after Al Lerners death. As the Lerners' franchise leader, he led the Browns to four losing seasons in five years. He left all football operations in the hands of Butch Davis, who resigned under pressure halfway through the '04 season.

With Policy and Davis gone, Randy Lerner had a chance for a fresh start in 2005. Unfortunately, that fresh start included new team president John Collins, who Randy hired to be his own version of Policy. It was Collins who helped oversee the hiring of two more unproven commodities in Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage. The former was a career-long defensive assistant who had never been a head coach on any level. The latter was a superscout for the Ravens who had never headed an organization before.

Reviews on the two have been mixed, but it appears that both have had to deal with a large learning curve. Crennel has had extensive trouble managing games and instilling disciplined play in his players. Savage still looks like he's more comfortable in the role of scouting head than team administrator. A general manager's most important role is that of roster manager, but he also has to oversee and be accountable for all football-related activity in his organization.

If that wasn't enough, Collins left the organization due to a bizarre series of events in December 2005 that almost cost Savage his job after less than a year. Whether it was a power play on the part of Collins or not, it became apparent that the two couldn't coexist. Another bump in the road.

Pointing out all of this isn't necessarily done to accuse the Lerners of running a bad organization. I still think that the Browns believe in high standards and doing things the right way. But the owner's finger is the one that flicks the domino line. If the owner doesn't hire effective administrators, the organization becomes flawed from that point down.

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly where the broken links in the chain are. Policy came to town with a full resume and multiple Super Bowl rings, but was exposed as little more than a spin doctor with no organization-building skills. Butch Davis came to town as the architect of a reborn Miami Hurricanes powerhouse who also had Super Bowl experience with the Cowboys, and also fizzled here.

John Collins came out of the NFL front office to join the Browns and was gone within two years. Chris Palmer and Romeo Crennel were both among the top head coaching candidates in the coordinator ranks when they were hired. Phil Savage had a Super Bowl ring to his credit, and even had his roots in the old Browns organization. None of these guys seemed like bad hires at the time, and Savage and Crennel still have time to save their jobs -- moreso Savage.

But there is no doubt about it. The Browns, on the field of play, are a losing team with a losing culture and, with few exceptions, have been that way since re-entering the league. Confidence is fleeting and fragile, mistakes are crushing and the effects of misfortune are long-lasting. This is a team that fears losing and plays that way. No matter who has been the coach, who has been the GM, who has been the starting quarterback, that has been the one constant.

That, and the Lerners' ownership. Which, fairly or not, might need to end before this franchise sees sustained success again.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Perception vs. reality

It's mid-September. The Browns are 0-2. They got to 0-2 by losing to the Steelers. If they lose to the almost-as-despised Ravens this weekend, they'll be 0-3, one-third of the way to a losing season. Most 0-2 teams don't make the playoffs. The track record of 0-3 teams? You don't want to know.

The reaction has been predictable among the general population.

Are Browns fans playing the part of the stereotypical star-crossed lover and readying themselves for the deep plunge off an area bridge? Are you kidding? This is Cleveland. That's what the name on the door says, right? What kind of delicate, melodramatic divas do you take us for? No, we're reacting how you should anticipate that a football-crazy fan base watching yet another football season teeter precariously on the edge of oblivion would react: With anger.

Fans are lining up outside the Bastille, ready for the signal to storm the gates and make some heads roll. Not pointing the finger of blame so much as swinging the sword of smiting.

It's a progressive condition. Drop an opening day egg? We develop a nervous twitch. Lose a winnable game to the Steelers in Week 2? We find it hard to concentrate on menial tasks. Lose to the Ravens? Heaven help you if you wear brown and orange.

No one in the Browns organization should feel terribly comfortable right now. It's hard to imagine a season filled with so much promise getting off to much worse of a start. But as much as we the fans wail and gnash our teeth, owner Randy Lerner isn't going to bulldoze the organization anytime soon. Nor should he.

Phil Savage, Romeo Crennel, Derek Anderson and their associates have put themselves in this position. Cutting bait on anyone after two lousy games not only scuttles the season, it lets the guys responsible off the hook.

So let them twist in the wind for right now and figure it out. They owe us at least that much.

What's the difference between the fans' perception of the Browns and the reality of the situation? Let's take a closer look...

Romeo Crennel

Perception: He's a nice guy who made it to where he is by sticking around long enough and earning the respect of the right people. He is, however, completely overmatched as an NFL head coach. He is quite possibly the worst game-day coach in the NFL.

Reality: He is a nice guy who made it to where he is by sticking around long enough and earning the respect of the right people. His resume includes five Super Bowl rings as an assistant coach and the loyalty of countless players, making him a tremendously popular locker room leader.

However, if the players like you too much, that might not be such a good thing. The Marines wouldn't get anywhere as a fighting force if their drill instructors tried to win popularity contests with recruits. In the end, a coach's job is to teach and discipline, and the Browns, as they did under Chris Palmer and Butch Davis, seem to lack basic discipline. At least William Green isn't getting into pregame fights with Joey Porter anymore.

Crennel's game-day coaching misadventures have been re-hashed ad nauseum in many forums and outlets this week, so I won't do it again. But suffice it to say, it's his weakest area. And we're not talking about strategy here (which I think Crennel actually has a decent handle on for the most part). We're talking about basic procedural things like getting the play to the quarterback in a timely manner, making the right replay challenges and knowing when to call a timeout.

Even if Crennel was coaching the Joe Montana-era 49ers, if he botches basic football procedures the way he has in his three-plus years at the helm of the Browns, he's going to lose games.

Is it time to fire Romeo? Not yet. But if the Browns enter the bye week at 0-4, his dismissal will be on the tip of everyone's tongue.

Phil Savage

Perception: A good evaluator of talent who isn't afraid to make a bold move, unlike a certain baseball GM in this town. The man most responsible for the Browns' 10-6 season a year ago.

Reality: Savage has enjoyed the perks of success as the GM of the Browns. A lot of criticism that would otherwise be aimed at him gets deflected. But as the losses mount, that's starting to wear away.

Yes, Savage's work on the Browns roster is masterful compared to some of the hack jobs done by his predecessors. But that's mostly an indicator of how bad it was prior to his arrival.

Savage's track record has been spotty. History will likely show that the drafting of Joe Thomas and the acquisition of Shaun Rogers were among his greatest successes. But most of his moves are, at the very least, up for debate.

Outside of Thomas, Savage's draft picks haven't yielded cornerstone players. Braylon Edwards has flaws that might prove to be fatal to his ability to become an elite receiver. Kamerion Wimbley has shown virtually nothing since his rookie season. Brodney Pool already has suffered three concussions. Charlie Frye was a colossal whiff. Brady Quinn might achieve stardom ... for another team. And that's without getting into the virtually-bare cupboard that has been Savage's collection of second-day draft picks.

His trades have been better, when they have been impact trades. The Hank Fraley deal was a thing of beauty in a time of need. But most of the time, Savage tends to pay out a lot, maybe too much, in trades. He gave up a second-rounder for Corey Williams, who some Browns coaches have already reportedly labeled a bust. He gave up a first-rounder and second-rounder for Quinn, who has played in one game so far. He gave up next year's third-rounder for Martin Rucker, a tight end who has been hurt since training camp.

Free agency has been relatively kind to Savage, the LeCharles Bentley fiasco notwithstanding. Savage has nabbed Eric Steinbach, Dave Zastudil, Jamal Lewis, Donte' Stallworth and Joe Jurevicius off the open market. But outside of Steinbach and maybe Stallworth, free agency didn't give Savage long-term, every-down impact players. Jurevicius and Lewis are short-term stopgaps.

Savage has done a reasonable job in accumulating talent, but like Grady Sizemore, he could stand to hit for a higher average.

Derek Anderson

Perception: His throws have two speeds: hard and harder. He thinks "finesse" is some weird French dish made with pig's feet. He thinks "feathering it in there" has something to do with chickens. If you had to lead a drive to win a game to save your life, Anderson would be about 153rd on the list of QBs you'd want under center.

Reality: Teaching D.A. to develop a soft touch has been kind of like teaching a bazooka to feed layups into a basketball hoop. It's just not in his nature, and it doesn't play to his strengths.

If the Browns foresee a future with a conservative, dink and dunk offense, might I suggest moving to Quinn? If you're going to use Anderson's arm, use it.

At this point, I'm fairly convinced that Anderson is what he is. He knows he can muscle balls into tight coverage because of his arm strength, so he gambles. Last year, it paid off. This year, it's not paying off, and it's not all his fault. In addition to Braylon's much-publicized drops, Anderson has no safety valve without Jurevicius and no second deep threat with Stallworth injured.

If the Browns are going to stick with Anderson, they'd better be prepared to accept both sides of him. He can thread the needle at his best, but he has accuracy problems, makes bad reads and gambles too much. A better coaching staff might allow Anderson to refine his skills a bit more, but it appears that Good Derek and Bad Derek are a package deal. Take him or leave him as is.

Rob Chudzinski

Perception: Last year's offensive genius, this year's shrinking violet.

Reality: In 2007, the Browns showed up on Sundays believing that they were going to score points, believing that they had the weapons to win and knew how to use them. The brains behind the brawn belonged to Chudzinski.

This year, the Browns' bold, potent offense has been replaced by something far more conservative -- maybe even timid at times. Granted, when you are facing the defenses of the Cowboys and Steelers, you can be excused for wanting to minimize your mistakes. But Chud has allowed the offense to stray from the unpredictability that made it so dangerous a year ago. The vertical passing game has been eschewed in favor of lots of first-down runs up the gut and underneath passing.

It's not so much that it's a bad approach, it's just that Chud's offense has become far more vanilla and predictable than last year. Hopefully, facing the Ravens, and especially the Bengals, in the coming weeks will convince Chud to open up the offense a bit more. Because right now, this seems like training-wheels offense.

Braylon Edwards

Perception: A guy who talks a much better game than he plays. The poster boy for arrogant, cocky, mouthy athletes who can't back it up on the field.

Reality: Behind the bravado and histrionics is a young man who is putting a tremendous amount of pressure on himself. He knows how much he means to the team, and it's playing no small part in his early-season bout with granite hands.

Edwards has always been known as a guy who doesn't have the greatest hands. Perhaps he doesn't have the naturally soft hands of a Jerry Rice. But most dropped passes are the product of what is going on between a receiver's ears.

The pressure isn't going away, so Edwards needs to take the pressure and turn it from a negative into a positive, from a burdensome weight to a challenge to which he must rise. And the sooner he can figure out how to do that, the better. His drops are killing this team as much as Anderson's errant throws and Crennel's game mismanagement.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The return of Kid Braylon

It's still early, but I don't like the direction in which Braylon Edwards' season is heading.

Last year, the Browns receiver with All-World talent appeared to turn the corner toward not just Pro Bowl performance, but a noticeable increase in maturity. Sure, he pulled a Dwayne Rudd in St. Louis, yanking off his helmet in celebration and drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. But overall, he stopped flapping his gums and starting catching the balls that a No. 1 receiver is supposed to catch.

The hookup between Edwards and Derek Anderson became arguably the most dangerous weapon in the Browns' offensive arsenal, and one of the best highlight-producers in the NFL. Defenses constantly had to watch over their collective shoulder because a bomb to Edwards could come anytime, anyplace. It was the football equivalent of watching Cliff Lee morph from a paint-by-numbers pitcher to a mound artist who can throw any pitch at any time and get a hitter out.

When I looked forward to the '08 season, the beauty and efficiency of Edwards' game was one of the items I circled. Even though Edwards played for That State Up North in college, any guy who can turn a 40-yard sideline route into must-see TV is OK in my book.

But as the NFL season enters its second week, I'm beginning to wonder if I overestimated the guy. In 2008, Kid Braylon appears to have returned.

It's 100 times worse than Kid LeBron, from "The LeBrons" Nike advertising campaign of the past several years. Kid LeBron shows up to a Cleveland sporting event to root for the other team. Kid Braylon gets stabbed in the foot by his teammate's cleats while horsing around in his stocking feet and misses most of the preseason. Kid Braylon wonders aloud if LeBron, the most important athlete in Ohio, even wants to play here. Kid Braylon lets catchable balls smack off his palms and fall harmlessly to the turf.

Kid Braylon is not the type of guy you want to build a team around. Kid Braylon causes headaches for his team's GM, coach and quarterback.

Most of the problems Kid Braylon causes are the result of doing first and thinking second. Though post-practice sprints are a part of the ritual for football teams at all levels, and it's understandable that a player might want to give his heavily-taped feet some relief by removing his shoes at the end of practice, running in your stocking feet in close proximity to a teammate who is running in sharp cleats would fall under the lesson you likely learned in kindergarten about not running with scissors. It's common sense. Coaches shouldn't have to monitor these types of things.

But Kid Braylon didn't weigh the consequences. And Donte' Stallworth's cleat clipped the back of his foot, opening a gash that required stitches and forced Edwards to miss the final three preseason games.

As a result, Edwards wasn't in anything remotely resembling game shape against Dallas. Huffing and puffing after long runs, it became apparent that he was expending so much energy just running his routes that he had nothing left to make a play once the ball arrived. Edwards' drops played a big part in short-circuiting what could have been a productive first quarter for the Browns. Instead of an entertaining shootout between two good offensive teams, the Browns offense became impotent without the big-play threat of Edwards, and the game became a blowout.

It's not fair to pin all the blame for the loss on Edwards. Stallworth sat out as well, and it looks like the lack of Joe Jurevicius as a short-yardage safety valve for Anderson is going to hurt the Browns every week. But Edwards' inability to do what he's paid millions to do -- catch the damn ball -- hurt the Browns as much as anything. And it can all be traced back to one act of indiscretion a month ago.

With that humiliation fresh on his mind, a mature star football player would keep his mouth shut and work twice as hard. Maybe Edwards did work twice as hard this week to try and make sure he's ready for the Steelers. But the "shut up" part ... not so much.

Already not in the good graces of Cleveland fans, Kid Braylon opened his monstrous yap on Tuesday during a personal appearance and gave his thoughts on LeBron's appearance at Cleveland Browns Stadium on Sunday to cheer on his beloved Cowboys:

"[James is] a guy from Akron who likes everybody but his hometown," Edwards was quoted by The Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto as saying. "LeBron isn't a Cleveland guy. LeBron only plays for the Cavaliers, and who knows if he even likes the Cavaliers?"

In Cleveland, where we are routinely subjected to national media rumors and articles concerning LeBron's supposed desire to bolt for the Knicks or Nets in two years, them's fightin' words. Especially coming from one of our own players.

Edwards considers LeBron a friend. He claims to have gotten to know him over the past couple of years. Though Edwards almost certainly is closer to LeBron than you or I, there is no evidence that Edwards has earned a spot in LeBron's highly-protected inner sanctum. So for him to speculate that LeBron might not like playing here would seem to be an act that needlessly irritates an already-exposed nerve among Northeast Ohio sports fans. Without considering that LeBron's fans are also his fans, Kid Braylon again did something without considering the consequences.

In Edwards' defense, it is easy to understand the nature of his comments. He, like a lot of area fans, was probably hurt by the fact that the most famous and influential athlete in the state, maybe the country, a man born and raised in Akron and playing for the Cavaliers, would show up and side with the enemy on a day when the Browns could have used all the support available.

Bob Feller made comments similar in nature last October. In response to LeBron's appearance at Game 1 of the Indians-Yankees series, Feller said he'd like to buy a Pistons hat and sit behind the Cavs bench to see how LeBron likes it.

The difference, of course, is that Feller has been retired as a player for more that 50 years. Edwards is an active player who we root for on a weekly basis. Feller also didn't insinuate that LeBron wants out of Cleveland, though you get the feeling that after that game, Feller probably would have gladly driven the car that took LeBron to the airport.

On the heels of an embarrassing performance against Dallas, no matter how Edwards personally felt about LeBron showing up to root for the Cowboys, he should have realized that the last thing he needed to do was spout off to the media about things that don't really concern him, spraying more water on the hornets' nest in the process.

That is the difference between the new, improved Braylon Edwards we saw in 2007 and the Kid Braylon that has returned so far this year. He's in the headlines for his mouth, not his game.

Unless Edwards wants to regress in a big way this year, that has to change as soon as possible.

Playing with a full deck

Lost in the wind and waves of the colossal USC-Ohio State and Browns-Steelers matchups this weekend, the Cavaliers made a little news of their own. Delonte West, whose restricted free agency stood as the last remaining barrier between the Cavs and a training camp free from contract issues, agreed to terms on Friday.

The deal, according to the Akron Beacon Journal's Brian Windhorst, is reportedly for three years and about $13 million, with the final year as an option.

The acquisition of Mo Williams demoted West from the starting point guard's role to quite possibly the eighth or ninth man on the roster, depending on how the rotations shape up in the preseason.

West could end up as the starting shooting guard, but even though he's probably the best defensive player in the backcourt, it's still difficult to envision a rail-thin 6'-4" drive-and-pass combo guard with a spotty perimeter game scoring on and effectively defending the likes of Tracy McGrady, Michael Redd and Ray Allen. The best options for Mike Brown to start at the two-guard are still likely Sasha Pavlovic and Wally Szczerbiak, in that order. So any realistic way you slice it, West is best suited for a bench role behind Williams.

But West's role on the team isn't the point right now. With training camp slated to start soon, the newsworthiness of West's signing is the signing itself.

Last year, the contract holdouts of Pavlovic and Anderson Varejao put the Cavs' season in quicksand from the get-go. Pavlovic didn't agree to terms on a new deal until the eve of the regular season, had to use the early part of the season as his training camp, and then became the first in a long line of Cavs players to miss time with injuries.

Varejao didn't make it back until the Charlotte Bobcats signed him to an offer sheet nearly a month into the season, which the Cavs matched. December was Varejao's training camp.

The holdouts of two key players plus a late-November finger injury to LeBron James put the Cavs in a hole that they never really climbed out of. At one point, they were six games under .500. A roster-altering blockbuster trade later, they finished with 45 wins and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.

You know the story of the playoffs. The Cavs knocked out an inferior Wizards team in six games, only to fall one game short against the eventual world champion Celtics in the second round, a seven-game series in which the home team won every game.

If you rewind to last October, it's easy to see how the dominoes lined up to fall against the Cavs last season, and it all started with the holdouts of Varejao and Pavlovic.

This season, that won't be a problem. With West in the fold, Brown and the coaching staff will have a full compliment of players from the outset. It's not a cure-all. Playing-time squabbles and injuries could still hinder the construction of team cohesion, but what is known is that every player who is supposed to be in camp will be there. Instead of starting the season with 15 players in varying states of readiness, the Cavs will start the season with 15 players who have been together, practicing and learning the playbook for more than a month.

With Brown, who is known for complex defensive schemes and lengthy play names, as the coach, the importance of that can't be underscored enough.

As NBA training camp approaches, I get the sense that the iron is getting hot for the Cavs, and the time to strike is approaching. This season might be the best chance the Cavs have to win an NBA title between now and the summer of 2010, when LeBron can opt out of his contract.

There will be no contract issues in training camp. Danny Ferry made a major addition in Williams. The three remaining players from last February's blockbuster -- West, Szczerbiak and Ben Wallace -- will start the season in Brown's system. J.J. Hickson might be the long-sought first-round pick who can actually help the Cavs as a rookie -- he had a monster summer league session to tease us.

Above all, LeBron appeared to take his leadership skills to the next level in the Olympics, proving once again that if LeBron James can't make you better as a basketball player, it's probably time to look for a new line of work.

Even the factors beyond the Cavs' control appear to be aligning in Cleveland's favor. The Pistons, after three straight eliminations in the Eastern Conference Finals, need to take the roster to the shop for a tune-up -- or maybe a total rebuild. They'll begin the season with a new head coach in Michael Curry and a roster that appears to be headed for a state of transition. Three of the team's pillars -- Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace -- are all in their 30s. Tayshaun Prince, like LeBron, will have to shake off Olympic fatigue early in the year. Their major offseason addition was famous draft bust Kwame Brown, who at best is a serviceable role player.

The Celtics lost James Posey to the Hornets in free agency. You could make a case that without Posey, Boston doesn't hold off the Cavs in the second round last spring. Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are still a formidable trio, but will all be a year older. Pierce is the youngest, and he'll turn 31 in October.

Even if the Celtics' big three stay healthy all year, it will still be difficult for the whole team to play the the relentless defense and with the unwavering sense of purpose that allowed them to win 66 regular season games and a championship last year. Last year, the Celtics were a team on a mission. It remains to be seen whether Boston can mount the same effort this year for six months of regular season action and two months of playoffs.

I still expect the Celtics to be very good, but some of the edge will likely be worn away. And even at their best, the Cavs still almost beat them.

In the Western Conference, the Lakers and Spurs are still the top dogs in my book, even if the Spurs appeared to look like a team approaching the 19th hole in the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers looked soft against the Celtics in the NBA Finals, but a healthy Andrew Bynum will restore a great deal of toughness to L.A.'s interior game.

The Hornets are knocking on the door with the emergence of Chris Paul as an elite player, not just an elite point guard. The addition of Posey's defense and championship experience could vault New Orleans into the NBA Finals conversation out west.

Also not to be overlooked are the Rockets, who added Ron Artest this summer. If Houston can work with the potentially-volatile concoction of Artest, McGrady and Yao Ming, they could finally take T-Mac beyond the playoff cannon fodder role he's played throughout his career.

This is the right time for the Cavs to get their affairs in order and approach the season squarely focused on an NBA title. The East is winnable for a team like Cleveland, and though the West is perpetually the stronger conference, even the best teams out there have questions to answer. With the re-signing of Delonte West, the Cavs at least know that they can concentrate 100 percent on basketball once the season arrives.

Monday, September 08, 2008

As advertised

Timing is everything in the NFL season. In Cleveland, where the Browns have won just one season opener since returning to the league in 1999, it doesn't matter who the opposing team is on opening day. If it involves a loss, it involves misery among the fans on the southern shore of Lake Erie.

Sunday was no exception. After getting thoroughly outclassed in every phase of the game by the blatantly superior Cowboys, seething, frustration and apocalyptic predictions were the order of the day on Monday. The Browns are sinking like the torpedoed Lusitania, and they don't have so much as a Dixie cup to begin bailing water. So, who do you like as the first overall pick next year?

But if you're honest with yourself, the smack-up beatdown the Cowboys handed the Browns Sunday afternoon was probably what you should have expected. If the Patriots with a healthy Tom Brady had come into Cleveland and handed the Browns a 28-10 loss, you sure wouldn't be happy, but you'd understand. It's the Patriots. They're just too good to hang with.

The same deference should be handed to the Cowboys. Now that Brady is reportedly done for the year with a leg injury, Dallas might be the NFL's best team. If they're not the lead dog, they're in the top three. Over the past two years, the only real thing that has stood between them and possible Super Bowl runs is Tony Romo's tendency to play his worst games in December and January. But Dallas' failure to make it to a record ninth Super Bowl has absolutely nothing to do with talent.

When examining Sunday's game, the first thing that must be done is refract the images through the lens of the talent discrepancy between the two teams. The Cowboys were better than the Browns at virtually every position. In particular, the battle between Dallas' large, athletic offensive line and Cleveland's fat, allegedly run-stopping, non-existent-pass-rush defensive line was laughable.

So the rule of thumb should be to give Dallas their due before shredding the Browns. Dallas could (maybe should) be holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy aloft in February. The Browns are, at the very best, a borderline playoff team in the tough AFC.

All the praise lavished locally on the Browns prior to the preseason was the product of one halfway-decent season after years of wandering the desert. The liberally-applied dose of national TV appearances? The product of an exciting offense combined with a team that tends to draw national viewers when they're good, thanks to a sizeable nationwide fan base.

It's perspective time. The Browns are a middle-of-the-pack team. They're not an offensive juggernaut -- certainly improved over anything they threw out there from 2004-06, but still a far cry from the Air Coryell-era Chargers. And despite how much doom and gloom you might feel like wallowing in, they're probably not destined for 2-14 either.

The Browns will lose to the likes of the Cowboys, Colts, Jaguars and Giants because they're just not good enough to beat them. But they should be good enough to beat the likes of the Bengals, Ravens, Texans and at least earn a split with the Steelers.

So before you embark on a season full of the kind of violent mood swings usually reserved for acne-covered steroid abusers, get a good feel for the Browns' place in the world. It might save you a prescription for high blood pressure medication.

Romeo, oh Romeo...

Having just attempted an even-keeled, quasi-fatalistic approach to the latest Browns disappointment, I have to turn the tables on Romeo Crennel.

Emotional distance and a "que sera, sera" attitude is great when you're a fan trying to keep a couple shreds of sanity knitted together in between your ear lobes. But why do I get the feeling that Crennel is too straight of a shooter?

I've long thought that Crennel was hired by Randy Lerner because he is the Anti-Butch Davis. Davis was a spin doctor, a relentless apologist for his players (but not the players brought on board by Dwight Clark), an excuse-maker and a control freak. Crennel, by contrast, is a walking, talking dose of truth serum.

Crennel has been around the block in football a few times, he's coached on five Super Bowl winners, and he knows a good football team when he sees it. And if he doesn't see a good football team in his locker room, he's not going to make believe that he does. Puffed-chest bravado just isn't his style. If his team is overmatched, he's probably the wrong guy to give his team the ol' "Hoosiers" pep talk.

If Crennel was coaching David prior to facing Goliath, his pre-fight speech would probably have been something along the lines of "Go out, execute the game plan, try to minimize your mistakes and we'll see what happens. Just don't try to do too much."

If that had been the case, the famous statue of David by Michelangelo would likely look a little more contemplative.

The trouble is, as much as the fans and media appreciate a coach who speaks the unvarnished truth and doesn't sugarcoat or spin, that's not always the best approach to take with your players, particularly when gearing up for a game. They need inspiration when facing a better opponent, and sometimes, that requires spinning the truth to inflate their collective self-confidence.

Some coaches give impassioned speeches. Some flip tables and scream obscenities. Some show film clips. Some have more subtle methods. But every good coach knows how to psychologically manipulate his players.

No one outside of the Browns' inner sanctum really knows what Crennel says to his players before the game and at halftime. Maybe the teddy bear really does have a grizzly streak in him. But on Sunday, the entire attitude of the Browns from the end of the first quarter on seemed to be one of resignation. The Cowboys were better, they knew the Cowboys were better, and they didn't even try to pretend that they had a chance of catching up once they fell behind by two touchdowns.

Sending the field goal unit out with a 21-point deficit in the fourth quarter was a head-scratching move in and of itself, but it really underscored the fact that Crennel and Company pulled the plug on the game long beforehand.

It's really a condescending attitude in my opinion, kind of a "Senator, I knew Jack Kennedy and you're no Jack Kennedy" moment. It was basically Crennel saying "I've coached on teams that have beaten the Dallas Cowboys, and you guys are not beating the Dallas Cowboys today."

The truth? Certainly. But far from the message Crennel should be sending to his players.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Lee's landmark season

Winning 20 games shouldn't be this big of a deal. But when Cliff Lee toed the rubber on Monday night with a 19-2 record, it was a big deal. A really big deal. A pins-and-needles in the ninth inning big deal.

Chalk it up to the typical Cleveland Sports Drought That Has Gone On For Way Too Long. You know it by heart: No 1,000-yard rushers for the Browns from 1985 to 2005, no Indians player hit for the cycle from 1978 to 2003, no Indians pitcher has thrown a no-hitter since 1981 -- heck, the Indians haven't even been no-hit since 1993. And I did all of that without even broaching the subject of championships.

The specialization of baseball pitchers has eaten into decision totals for starters. Gaylord Perry's 21-13 record in 1974 marked the last time a Tribe pitcher won 20 games in a regular season. In eras past, Perry's '74 performance would have been viewed as something far less spectacular than the pomp and circumstance that normally surrounds a 21-win season in the 21st Century. Perry was the ace of the staff, so he pitched the most and racked up the most decisions.

It's been so long between 20-game winners for the Indians, comparing Perry's '74 season to Lee's 2008 season is like comparing a Model T to a gas-electric hybrid. Perry's '74 totals came in 37 starts. He threw complete games in all but nine of those starts, amassing 322 innings pitched.

So far this year, Lee has totaled 27 starts, with four complete games, pitching 194 innings in the process. That's a little over seven innings a start. Assuming Lee keeps his current pace of innings pitched per start, making six more starts for a season total of 33, he'll rack up 236 innings pitched for the year. In 2008, that makes him an ironman. C.C. Sabathia pitched 241 innings last year, and there was much debate among the professional and amateur pundits over whether the heavy workload was a factor in his postseason tank job.

It seems like every trend in baseball is working against the 20-win season. But it's still mind boggling that the Indians -- a franchise that, once upon a time, was the gold standard in pitching -- could go more than three-tenths of a century without cranking out one 20-game winner.

There were the close calls in recent years. Bartolo Colon won 20 in 2002, but 10 wins in, he was traded to the Expos. In 2005, Lee won 18 and finished fourth in Cy Young Award voting. In '07, both Sabathia and Fausto Carmona won 19, and there is reason to believe that if not for a midsummer power outage by the offense, both might have won 20.

But even if the Indians had ended up with two 20-game winners a year ago, their achievements would have been a footnote to a hot-and-heavy race to the postseason. When any Cleveland fan younger than 40 doesn't have a reasonably good recollection of the last Indians 20-game winner, maybe the drought-breaking occasion should be a bit more special than a means to a playoff end.

So Lee took the opportunity to inject some meaning into an otherwise-meaningless season. With the Indians hopelessly buried in the AL Central standings, there is now plenty of opportunity to meditate on what a truly special season Lee has given us.

The cynic says that Lee's great season has been wasted by a non-contending ballclub. That is true, to an extent. Everyone -- Lee included -- would rather his wins propel the Indians toward the playoffs. But if compromises must be made, to put words in the mouth of the late, great Bill Veeck, it's better to have a losing season with a 20-game winner than a losing season and a long, still silence.

Lee's season is certainly good enough to take the spotlight by itself. His .909 winning percentage is the best since Roger Clemens started the 2001 season 20-1. Clemens finished that season 20-3 with a 3.51 ERA, winning the Cy Young Award with an ERA nearly half a run higher than that year's AL ERA champ, Freddy Garcia (3.05).

Lee's 2.32 ERA not only leads the AL, it would be the lowest among starting pitchers in the league since Pedro Martinez finished the 2003 season with a 2.22 ERA. And Lee still has potentially six more starts to keep (hopefully) knocking his ERA down.

If Lee wins four of his estimated six remaining starts, he'll become the first 24-game winner in the majors since Randy Johnson in 2004, and the first in the AL since Bob Welch won 27 for Oakland in 1990.

All the statistics say Lee is having one of the greatest seasons by a starting pitching in this decade, and quite possibly the greatest season by an Indians starting pitcher since the 1950s.

Lee should breeze to the Cy Young Award, giving the Tribe back-to-back Cy Young winners for the first time ever. But, this being Cleveland, there is always a catch, always reason to nibble on your fingernails until the envelope is opened.

Out in Los Angeles, Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez is putting together his own historic season, on pace to obliterate Bobby Thigpen's 1990 single-season saves record of 57. Entering play on Tuesday, K-Rod had 53 saves. It would take a major dip in production for him to not reach the 60-save plateau in the season's final month.

K-Rod will certainly steal some Cy Young votes from Lee. But if he steals the award from Lee based solely on his save total, it will be one of the greatest hose jobs in baseball history, for one simple reason: Lee has performed at a superlative level for longer than K-Rod this year.

To me, it comes down to the simple argument that Lee has pitched 194 innings to K-Rod's 58. No matter how dominant K-Rod has been, he's dominating one, maybe two, innings each time out. Lee is dominating seven-to-nine innings each time out. In other words, Lee gets wins and K-Rod saves wins. That's the difference that should tilt the Cy Young voting heavily in Lee's favor.

It's amazing that we can talk about the idea of Lee not winning the Cy Young as a travesty. His 20th win came on the one-year anniversary of his '07 September call-up -- a tag he probably figured he'd never wear again after winning double-digit games each year from 2004-06. But his 2007 season derailed early and never got back on track. Last winter, he was a spare part with an uncertain future in the Indians organization. He appeared to have more value as a piece of trade bait than as a working member of the starting rotation.

This year, after showing flashes of brilliance in seasons past, he finally seized the opportunity presented him in spring training and never let go, rising from the fifth starter on opening day to not just the ace of the staff, but the best pitcher in an entire league. From a piece of organizational flotsam to a pitcher who Mark Shapiro will now rely on as a central part of his 2009 rotation.

The guy who sarcastically doffed his cap to a Cleveland Bronx cheer after a miserable outing last summer has now given us a historically-significant season that we'll remember for years. Lee's 20-win season was a ridiculously long time in coming, both for the player and the city.