Saturday, November 28, 2009

The center of attention

If you've followed the Cavaliers for any or all of the past 13 years, it has been easy to develop an emotional attachment to Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

Between 1996 and 2001, he missed two full seasons, and all but five games of a third season, recovering from repeated bone breaks in his feet. The frustration for Z, the Cavs and Cleveland fans was compounded by the fact that his talent was undeniable. In his delayed rookie season of 1997-98, he averaged 13.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game, and was named to the NBA's All-Rookie First Team.

But the foot problems just wouldn't go away. Faced with the possibility of crippling himself by continuing to play basketball, he seriously considered retirement. He decided to make one last go of it with an extensive restructuring of his left foot -- which accounted for five of his seven foot fractures -- that was aimed at taking stress off the navicular bone, in the midfoot, which kept failing.

The 2000 surgery led to another year of painful rehabilitation, and a tenuous-at-best grip on his career. When Z took the floor during the 2001-02 season, no one really knew what to expect. He played in 62 games, starting 23. His 11 points per game was gravy. The big victory was his presence on the court.

If Z could have finished out his playing days as a serviceable backup, it would have been considered a minor miracle by anyone who watched his five-year battle with brittle feet. But Z was only getting started. As the 2002-03 season progressed, it became apparent that the restructuring surgery had been a rousing success. He averaged 17.2 points per game, still a career high, and -- most importantly -- played in 81 of a possible 82 games. The only game he missed that year was due to a technical-foul suspension.

But the Cavs won just 17 games that year. The 2003 draft was the type that changes franchises, and the Cavs wanted a piece of the action. More specifically, the Akron high school phenom, LeBron James.

When the ping-pong balls of the NBA draft lottery handed the first pick to the Cavs, LeBron's future as a Cav was sealed, and Z was suddenly an important supporting cast member of the Cavs' resurgence.

The ensuing six seasons have brought Cleveland the spoils of LeBron: The franchise's first NBA Finals berth in 2007 and a 66-win season a year ago. But the past six seasons have also seen Z age from smooth moves and a silky jumper to a just-plain-slow spot-up jump shooter.

The game has changed. Now 34, Z has aged as gracefully as one could expect, given the amount of metal in his feet, but the center spot has been taken over by an assortment of freakishly good athletes.

When Z entered the league, the center spot was the sole property of muscle men and back-to-the-basket players. Shaquille O'Neal was the gold standard -- huge and pumped, but never to be mistaken for a high wire act. The other dominant centers of the time included Hakeem Olajuwon, Alonzo Mourning, David Robinson and Dikembe Mutombo. All great in their own ways, but without question fitting the old-school mold of a center.

Then Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan came of age, and the era of the power forward-center hybrid arrived. The wing-scorer play of Amare Stoudemire upped the ante on what a center could and could not do. Then in 2004, Dwight Howard arrived. The strength of a center, the athleticism of a forward, and a tremendous leaper to boot.

By the time Howard and the Magic got through with dispatching the Cavs in last spring's Eastern Conference Finals, it was apparent to those inside and outside the organization that if the Cavs wanted to win the four playoff series necessary to claim the NBA title, Z just wasn't going to cut it as the starting center anymore.

So Danny Ferry traded for Shaq. Even at 37 and slowing down, Shaq still brings a dimension of size, power and defense to the pivot that Z could never hope to bring.

The net result: When Shaq is healthy, Z now comes off the bench. In the closing years of his career, with seasons' worth of aches and pains taking their toll, it has been a difficult adjustment for the Lithuanian big guy.

Coming into games from the bench means coming into games cold. The muscles that you worked so hard to limber in pregame warmups start to contract. The post touches and perimeter shots you were used to getting at the outset of every game are no longer there. For Z, who was used to filling a certain role for so long, coming off the bench is more than a mentality shift. It's a shift in his state of being. So far, his game hasn't reacted well.

Through Friday's loss at Charlotte, Z had started six of a potential 16 games. His minutes per game are down about three from last year (24.3 from 27.2). While his minutes per game have fallen off somewhat, his points and rebounds per game are way off. He's averaging 7.1 PPG after having never averaged fewer than 11 PPG in any previous season. His 6.2 RPG is on pace to become his lowest per-game rebound total since he averaged 5.4 RPG in 2001-02 while returning from his reconstructive foot surgery.

However, the biggest red alert comes from his shooting percentage. Z is a career 47.5 percent field goal shooter. His 15-to-18 foot jumper has set standards for reliability that car companies can only hope to match. But this year, it's just not there. Through Friday, he was shooting 37.8 percent from the field, and the struggling has bled over to his free throw shooting. A career 78.1 percent free-throw shooter, Z is shooting a mere 71 percent from the stripe so far this season.

If Z can't shoot it like Z, his on-court value to the team decreases dramatically, especially when the Cavs have to face another elite team that poses athletic mismatches for Z on the defensive end.

We're quickly arriving at what might be an unavoidable conclusion: The level of competition provided by the frontcourts of the NBA's other elite, plus the arrival of Shaq, might equal Z as a mismatched part. In which case, his $11.5 million expiring contract is best put to use in a trade for a player who better fits the Cavs' schemes.

With the Cavs preparing themselves to move forward without Delonte West if need be, it would seem that Ferry should want to thoroughly investigate any opportunity to add a high-caliber shooting guard to the roster. Ferry reportedly made a hard push for Stephen Jackson, but the Warriors balked at the Cavs' offer and sent Jackson to Charlotte.

Power forward is another area of potential need. Though J.J. Hickson has, on the whole, looked pretty good since moving to the starting lineup several weeks ago, power forward is still not a team strength -- particularly if Z continues to struggle and Anderson Varejao has to log big minutes at center. Leon Powe could add some beef to the big forward spot upon his return, but that won't be until February at the earliest -- and it would be better to remain conservative with your Powe expectations, given that he'll be returning from an 8-to-10 month rehab stint.

If Ferry can add a perimeter-shooting power forward, the so-called "stretch four" who can help clear out operating space for Shaq, LeBron and Mo Williams in the paint, he has to take a serious look at it.

Ultimately, the best option might be to part ways with Z. It's a potentially painful decision that Ferry could have to make. Z and Ferry are friends going back to their days as Cavs teammates. Z is the longest-tenured Cav, he's waded through a lot of medical adversity and bad basketball to get to where he is, and it would be a sweet stanza of poetry if he could someday be on the podium as the Cavs are passing around the Larry O'Brien Trophy as the NBA champions.

But that celebration might never arrive unless Ferry deals Z for a player who can help this team win in May and June. Right now, Z is having a hard enough time doing his part in November, let alone next spring, when he'll have another season's worth of wear and tear on his aging body.

There is the often-referenced possibility of a trade-and-buyout scenario, which would allow Z to return to the Cavs 30 days later, but once Ferry pulls the trigger on a trade, that matter is between Z and the team that receives him. Z might want to return to the Cavs because his ties to the team are so deep, because of his loyalty to Ferry, or because he'd like a shot at a ring, even if it means riding the end of the bench. But it would be wise to not assume any of that.

It might come down to the decision to sacrifice Z, his tenure with the Cavs and everything he has meant to the team in the LeBron James era, for a better shot at a title -- and maybe by extension, a better shot at keeping LeBron happy and in a Cavs uniform after this season.

It might be heartbreaking for Ferry to make that trade, but considering what's at stake, the heartbreak could become exponentially worse if Ferry doesn't find the right trade and execute it between now and the February trade deadline.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Remembering why I'm thankful

In Cleveland, you have to want to be thankful.

In a town where the economy is badly damaged, jobs are drying up, the population is shrinking and the sports teams haven't delivered a major league professional title in 45 years, it's incredibly easy to focus on the ways in which we're the gum on the bottom of fate's shoe. It's far too easy to look down the road and see a Cleveland in which LeBron James has left and is winning championships elsewhere, in which casinos have become a failed experiment that haven't driven any type of growth except crime.

It's way too easy to look to the heavens and ask, "What have you done for me lately?"

That's why we need the holiday season in this town.

Not the retail-driven, hyper-commercialized, big-box retailer, buy-the-perfect-present holidays. The holidays of quiet reflection, looking back on the past year and taking stock of your life.

It's fitting that Thanksgiving kicks off the season. Because before you can look to the spoils of Christmas morning and the hopeful promise of a new year, you need to remember what you have right now. Even if you need to search the folds of your brain for your source of gratitude, it's worth the time. You might even learn something about yourself in the process.

Need some encouragment? Let me set the example. Here are some of the things, great and small, that I'm thankful for this holiday season:

In Cleveland, I can make it across town in 35 minutes

When you get right down to it, Cleveland is just the right size. Big enough to be a substantial metropolitan area, but not so big that commuting becomes a migraine-inducing struggle. In most cities, major traffic jams are a fact of life and urban commuting is a part-time job that you hold in addition to your full-time job.

It's been driven home to me the past couple of years, ever since my girlfriend (now fiancee and wife by next September) moved here from the Toledo area. I live on the west side. My fiancee lives in Lake County. We often drive back and forth to see each other during the week, despite the fact that our apartment complexes are separated by 27 miles.

In Cleveland, it's possible. In Atlanta, for instance, it would be a lot more difficult. Atlanta's outerbelt is often choked with traffic by mid-afternoon. Their rush hour commonly lasts 3-4 hours, and their non-rush hour daytime traffic is like Cleveland's rush hour volume.

Three successful 5Ks

I've been running on a fairly regular schedule for almost two years. But it wasn't until this past summer when I decided to start taking running more seriously.

I always hated running growing up. It made my sides hurt and my lungs burn. But I decided to, in small increments, fight through my body's temper tantrums and get myself to the point where I could run a sustained 3.1 miles. In October, I ran my first 5K and won the second place award for my age group. I ran two other races in October and November.

Am I fast? not by a long shot. I run 5Ks in about half an hour. But I ran them, I didn't sustain any injuries and I can officially say I've taken a path in life that I thought I'd never take. It leads to a finish line at the end of a road race.

I'm looking forward to more 5Ks, and maybe 10Ks, in 2010.

Sunsets over Lake Erie

One of the great advantages of spending time in Lake County is that the Lake Erie shoreline starts to veer sharply to the northeast. As a result, each summer you get a front-row view for some of the best water sunsets east of California.

Sometimes, you can kind of forget that Cleveland is, at its heart, a marine city. A drive up the Lake Erie coast at sunset puts you back in touch with your inland sea roots.

Melt Bar and Grilled

Only about five miles from my apartment. A nationally-recognized sandwich paradise worth the trip -- when you can get a table, that is.

Every Cavs game I've seen in person since 2003

No matter what happens after this season, I've seen LeBron James play in person dozens of times. I've seen him bring 20,000 people to their feet with a mind-blowing dunk, an emphatic block, a physics-bending pass. I've been in the vortex of sound. I've seen with my own eyes what he is capable of.

And now, I can also say that I've seen Shaquille O'Neal in person. Time is running out for that.

Jim Tressel's continued dominance of Michigan

I'm marrying into a family of Michigan and Detroit fans. The benefits are immeasurable.

Three ballparks within easy driving distance

So the Indians aren't winning? Don't find the atmosphere at The Prog to be all that fulfilling? There is always the Lake County Captains at Classic Ballpark, and the Lake Erie Crushers at one of the hidden gems of the Cleveland area, All-Pro Freight Stadium in Avon. I frequent all three parks in the summer, but the Crushers' digs are quickly becoming a favorite.

Oberin College's campus

I first visited the campus in 2006. You might have your opinions about the college or the town, but the square at the center of campus is a great, and picturesque, relaxing place. I try to get out to Oberlin just to walk around and snap photos at least once or twice a year.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Failing at failing

What the Browns did in losing to Detroit 38-37 on Sunday was pretty remarkable.

Yeah, they built a 24-3 lead after weeks and weeks of historic offensive ineptitude. Yeah, they entirely blew said lead. Yeah, they rallied to take a 37-31 lead into the final minutes. And, yeah, they had the game won until Hank Poteat's pass interference call turned a game-ending Brodney Pool interception into first-and-goal with no time on the clock.

And, I might add, the ensuing Browns timeout gave Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford a chance to recover from an injury suffered when he was leveled on the final timed play. Stafford dragged himself back into the game and threw the winning touchdown pass to Brandon Pettigrew with literally triple zeroes on the game clock.

But none of that is as amazing as the fact that I felt absolutely nothing afterward. Don't misinterpret that. I didn't feel numb. I felt nothing as in, I changed the channel and busied myself doing other things.

Leave it to the Browns: They don't even know how to frustrate me properly anymore.

Sunday's game had all the makings of a thriller. No lead was safe. Stafford and Brady Quinn were slinging the ball like Dan Marino and Johnny Unitas. Stafford finished with 422 yards passing and a 112.7 QB rating. Quinn finished with 304 yards and a 133.1 rating. Neither team relied much on their ground games. Jamal Lewis was the contest's leading rusher, with 75 yards on 24 carries.

Three touchdown passes in the game covered 40 yards or more: Quinn touchdowns to Mohamed Massaquoi (59 yards) and Chansi Stuckey (40 yards), and a Stafford hookup with Calvin Johnson (75 yards).

And that's before you even get to the screwball ending -- a Browns speciality since returning to the league in 1999.

This game was the direct descendent of the '90s run-and-shoot fad. Of Air Coryell and the American Football League. Observed through the lens of a single football game between two teams, this was everything that makes you want to sit down on a Sunday afternoon and watch football. You don't even have to be a fan of either of the teams playing to enjoy a high-scoring shootout. It's great TV, and probably even better in person.

But it was impossible to take Sunday's game without context. And the context is what made this game about as compelling as a marathon research session involving dusty encyclopedia volumes at the local library.

Both teams were 1-8 heading into play. They were bottom feeders at the season's outset, and have actually been worse than advertised. They were consigned to the trash heap a while back. The Lions, who play indoors at climate-controlled Ford Field, only drew a crowd of 43,000, microscopic by NFL standards. The lack of a sellout lowered a blackout on more than half of the state of Michigan, and most of northwest Ohio.

If anything, this game should have been shown outside of Michigan and Ohio, in markets that just wanted to see an entertaining football game. Instead, most of the country got a far-more-meaningful but lower-scoring wrestling match between Indianapolis and Baltimore, won by the still-unbeaten Colts 17-15.

In Ohio, and I can only guess in Michigan as well, this game was killed, gutted and cooked before it even arrived in the kitchen. From the standpoint of a Browns fan, it really didn't matter what Quinn did today against a terrible Lions pass defense. It didn't matter what receiver stepped up. It didn't matter if Lewis found the fountain of youth for one more game. It didn't matter if Kamerion Wimbley looked like an actual pass rusher for one game.

It just didn't matter because the Browns are toast this year, there is a strong possibility that they're headed for another rebuild, that the coaching staff is going to be replaced and the roster once again gutted by a different decision-maker with different philosophies on building a team.

Essentially, this was an exhibition game that occurred about three months too late. There is no way this game could serve as a building block. There is no way this game could serve as any pinpoint of light, foretelling of better days ahead. Not against the post-Matt Millen Lions, a team that is 2-8 and already two wins better than last season.

Actually, this wasn't an exhibition game. Exhibition games generally accomplish something, even if it's just paring down the roster. You find out something about your team -- or at least your players -- during the preseason.

This game was an old-timers reunion game played by 20- and 30-somethings. The Browns and Lions should have been wearing sneakers on the feet and flags on their belts. And what happens at the end of an old timers' game? You grab a beer and reminisce about the glory days. Really, as a Browns fan, what else is there right now?

The Browns didn't just fail on Sunday. They failed their fail. They took a game that should have had some meaning, a game with an ending that should have made me grumpy for the rest of Sunday and a good portion of Monday, and turned it into nothing with their performance in the previous nine games.

Here is the message the Browns' big thinkers need to hear: Want to get fans up for these kinds of games? Play them in September, when the season still has a pulse, before your radio broadcasts become background static for home winterization projects. Then use the momentum from those games -- some of which you'll hopefully win -- to carry the team into fan-drawing, late-season contests that have this foreign substance on them called "playoff implications."

As of now, I really don't care if Quinn outduels Dan Fouts circa 1981. It's way too little, way too late to make me care.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Building the perfect Pippen

The Cavaliers were lauded for their team chemistry all last season. They played as one, stood as one, cheered as one, won as one. They did it for 82 regular season games and two playoff sweeps.

So what if the Cavs roster lacked the top to bottom talent of the Magic, Lakers and Celtics? The 2008-09 Cavs were a shining examples of a team as greater than the sum of its parts. It wasn't about LeBron James finding his Scottie Pippen or his Shaquille O'Neal. It was about team. All for one, one for all, as the Cavs' marketers will tell you.

We believed it, right up until the Magic ended the innocence in six games of the Eastern Conference Finals. The teamwork withered against Orlando's vexing matchup challenges. LeBron turned himself into a one-man scoring show and killed the offense in the process. His teammates couldn't hit shots. Mike Brown's coaching was woefully inadequate.

The disappointing loss scrawled over the poetry of last season, and got people both inside and outside the organization thinking about basketball, once again, as more of a science than an art.

Danny Ferry went out and got what he hopes is a reasonable facsimile of Shaq in 37-year-old, past-his-prime Shaq. You might have to sit him sometimes, just to save some tread on his tires, but if last week's road wins at Orlando and Miami are any indication, he still has enough strength and savvy to help a team win when it counts the most.

Ferry's stabs at adding height to the perimeter have panned out reasonably well so far. Anthony Parker has found a home as the starting shooting guard. Jamario Moon's productivity has escalated over the past couple of weeks.

But something else happened over the summer, away from the rolling cameras. It involves LeBron, J.J. Hickson and a mentoring relationship that goes a lot deeper than most.

Over the summer, LeBron took a personal interest in the Cavs' second-year power forward. As a 20-year-old, Hickson had a difficult rookie season in the NBA. He averaged 4 points and 2.7 rebounds in 62 games before a back injury ended his season early. He often looked overwhelmed at the professional level after spending just one season at North Carolina State. Hickson showed flashes of his raw talent, but was frequently a defensive liability, and Brown yanked him from games early and often.

A youngster buried on a team of established veterans, a team with championship aspirations that couldn't afford to let him play through his growing pains, Hickson appeared destined to join Shannon Brown and Luke Jackson among the host of recent Cavs first-round draft busts.

But circumstances aligned differently for Hickson, who might stand to become the Cav who benefits the most from the team's unceremonious playoff ouster last spring.

For LeBron's entire NBA career, the Cavs have tried to pair him with a frontline second scorer -- his own Scottie Pippen, if you will. While it's folly to think that just because the sidekick formula worked for Michael Jordan, it is a necessary ingredient for every superstar-led championship team, there is logic in the idea that a superstar would want a legitimate second scorer alongside him, someone else that the opposing defense has to worry about stopping each night.

The attempts date back to Ricky Davis in LeBron's rookie season. That didn't work so well. The Larry Hughes experiment could have gone better. When Mo Williams arrived, it was the closest thing to a Jordan/Pippen, Magic Johnson/James Worthy two-man setup we had seen during the LeBron Era.

But against Orlando, Mo regressed into a spot-up jump shooter, which choked off his dribble-driving, pesky-energy game. He looked like anything but a Pippen figure against the Magic.

When LeBron shuffled into the offseason, he was once again a king without an attendant. Maybe that's why he didn't just take Hickson under his wing this summer. He virtually turned him into a blood relative.

If no one else was going to provide him with a Pippen, LeBron was going to build his own Pippen. Hickson is the subject of his grand experiment. Talented enough to be a legitimate second option scorer, young enough to be molded.

True to his best-at-everything approach to life, LeBron didn't cut any corners. Hickson jetted around the country with LeBron, working out with him, appearing at basketball camps, eating meals and spending leisure time with LeBron.

In one summer, LeBron gave Hickson a thorough grounding in NBA basketball -- how to play it, how to live it, how to operate as part of a team.

Now that the season has started, LeBron has begun to test-drive his new creation. He has frequently taken a backseat at the basket, preferring to set up Hickson for his shots. Mo and Shaq -- likely at the urging of LeBron -- have done the same.

It was ultimately Brown's decision to move Hickson into the starting lineup the weekend before last, but it wouldn't shock me if behind-the-scenes campaigning from LeBron had something to do with the change. It was likely a move born from Hickson's marked progress in practice, plus Brown's willingness to trust that his superstar will do what it takes to make the lineup change work.

So far, the change has been an amazing success. The increased playing time has worked wonders for Hickson, who in his first four starts vaulted from six points in 13 minutes against the Knicks a week ago Friday to 20 points in 38 minutes in this past Saturday's win over the Jazz. In that game, he scored on drives and jump shots, and -- as The Plain Dealer's Brian Windhorst pointed out in his game notes -- was on the floor for the final play of a close game. That is a major vote of confidence from Brown. It means that Hickson is now truly being treated as a starter.

Four games is a very small sample size, and he's still making plenty of sloppy mistakes, such as losing his handle on the ball and failing to cleanly handle passes. But for the first time in his young career, it seems like Hickson's deep reservoir of raw talent has been tapped.

If Hickson demonstrates continued progress over the remainder of the season, the Cavs have just found a starting forward for years to come. A starting forward who can probably average 16 to 20 points per game, and with some more fundamental work on defense, can easily average seven to eight rebounds per game.

All of which begs the question, if LeBron is putting this much time and effort into turning Hickson into an integral part of the Cavs' future plans, why would he ditch Hickson at the end of the season to go elsewhere? LeBron isn't trying to do the Cavs a favor by grooming his replacement. The world of professional sports doesn't work like that. He's not developing a close relationship with Hickson just to be nice. He can be friends with Hickson and show him the ropes without turning him into a personal protege.

It seemingly wouldn't make a lot of sense for LeBron to go to these lengths to groom Hickson if he didn't intend to stick around and reap the benefits.

Of course, there is a lot of basketball left to be played between now and next summer. Time will tell how much the lessons of LeBron impact Hickson. Time will tell if Hickson does, in fact, develop into LeBron's second-option, Scottie Pippen sidekick figure.

But if he does, you'd have to believe that LeBron would have a hard time justifying leaving the known for the unknown of the struggling Knicks or Nets, or a potentially-complicated and delicate balancing act with Dwyane Wade on an otherwise-threadbare roster in Miami -- and taking an upfront pay cut from what the Cavs can offer to do so.

There are seven and a half months for all that to shake out. But it appears that J.J. Hickson has suddenly -- or maybe not-so-suddenly -- become a key player who could help determine the future plans of both LeBron and the Cavs.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sending a message

Next Monday, the eyes of the football-watching world will somehow find their way to Cleveland via ESPN. That's because, somehow, the Browns found their way onto the Monday Night Football schedule for 2009.

It's a divisional game versus the Ravens, an AFC Championship Game participant a year ago. Outside of Baltimore, Cleveland and the football junkie section of the U.S. population -- the kind that would watch the Rams play the Lions, even with no rooting interest, just because it's football -- there is no reason for anybody to build their evening around this game.

The Ravens, trendy Super Bowl picks at the outset of the season, are kind of sputtering along at 4-4. They'll be coming into town fresh off a 10-point loss to the suddenly-successful Bengals, stuck in the wild card chase pack behind Pittsburgh and San Diego.

The Browns are 1-7, and needed a botched kick return to even get the "1" on their record. They haven't even been competitive in six of their seven losses.

When these two teams met in Week 3, the game was so comically lopsided that Brady Quinn was benched for Derek Anderson halfway through. Anderson injected maybe half a quarter of life into a stone-dead Browns offense, but the Ravens still cruised to a 34-3 win.

It's a game ESPN would probably like to hand back to CBS for Sunday airing. The Browns would probably just as soon skip out on the national publicity right now, too. A 27-point pounding is bad enough on a regional Sunday broadcast. A 27-point pounding in front of the nation -- an apathetic nation, granted, but still all 50 states -- is exponentially worse.

It is against this backdrop of an underachieving football team playing a bottom feeder on the NFL's biggest weekly stage that an enterprising Browns fan would like those of you unlucky enough to have tickets to tell Randy Lerner, and the nation, how you really feel about the state of your team.

"Dawg Pound Mike" Randall, one of the more visible Browns fans (you can tell it's him by the giant dog bone he wears on his head), along with fellow Browns fan Tony Schafer, want everyone in attendance to refrain from entering the seating bowl prior to kickoff. Just long enough to let ESPN begin their broadcast and present their establishing stadium shots with no one in the stands.

It seems the primary objective of Randall and Schafer is to create more accountability on the part of Lerner and the front office. He wants Lerner to address the fans publicly and take his verbal lumps for the sorry state of the Browns organization.

Randall and Schafer received several thousand e-mails from other fans supporting their stance and demanding more accountability out of Lerner and the team's football decision-makers. They presented some of the e-mails to Lerner during a meeting last week, The Plain Dealer reported.

If Randall and Schafer want to lead a demonstration, fine. Public demonstrating has been an integral part of the American experience ever since a few guys threw crates of tea into Boston Harbor. But if Randall and his crew want real change and real accountability, a delayed mass sit-down in front of a disinterested nation isn't the way to do it.

Why? A few points:

1. You're not telling Lerner anything he doesn't already know.

The team is awful. The fans are upset. We demand answers. We want the responsible feet held to the fire for this mess. Lerner knows this.

It's not like he's going to see an semi-empty stadium, possibly receive an inbox full of hate-mail, and suddenly have a grand epiphany in which he finally realizes that the team is awful, the fans are angry and he'd better do something about it.

Lerner knows the state of the team. The trouble is, his attempts to change the team's fortunes have gone only slightly better than the Hindenburg's attempt to land at a windy airfield in Lakehurst, N.J. in 1937.

In other words, don't mistake incompetence for inattentiveness. Lerner isn't failing as an NFL owner because he's not listening to the fans' pleas for change. He's failing as an NFL owner because his administrative decisions have been terrible.

2. Fan protests, as a general rule, don't improve team performance.

Orioles fans staged a walkout from a game at Camden Yards in 2006. Pirates fans tried the same tactic with a planned walkout in 2007. Management of those teams obviously heard their fans loud and clear. The Orioles just finished a last-place 64-98 season. The Pirates just finished a last-place 62-99 campaign. Both protests have been long forgotten by the baseball-watching public.

Voice your frustration all you want. Just don't expect the management of your favorite, struggling team to suddenly turn over a new leaf. Or in the case of the Pirates, find the money to compete with the big-market bullies.

3. The nature of the protest seems flawed.

The primary problem I see with a delayed sit-down is Randall, Schafer and their backers are trying to have their cake and eat it, too. To enter the stadium and hang out on the concourse until kickoff is kind of like trying to send McDonald's a message by continuing to eat there, but only using the drive-through instead of walking through the restaurant door. In the end, you're still plunking your money down and shoveling their food into your esophagus.

The walk-in protest has drawn enough national attention that ESPN and the people around the nation who do tune in will know why the stands are next to empty at kickoff, if this protest indeed is a success. So in that sense, it will draw attention. But there will be other establishing shots over the course of the game, other blimp shots, other pans of the crowd. It seems like it wouldn't make a very strong statement if the opening shots show empty stands and the halftime shots show a raucous, supportive crowd.

You want to support the players, even if you're angry at management. You also paid a lot of money for those seats that get you on TV. I get that. But the net result might be a wishy-washy protest that generates little to none of the desired effect -- which is apparently to make a lasting statement about the fans' displeasure with the state of their team. You're going to have a heck of a time making that kind of impression if you're still in attendance and spending your money on concessions and merchandise.

4. With that in mind, there is one sure way to make your voice heard.

As a fan, what is the one variable you control in all of this? What is the one foolproof way you can let Browns management know you're unhappy with their job performance?

You might be sitting on it right now. It's called your wallet.

If you aren't happy with how Randy Lerner is running the Browns, answer with apathy. How do you do that? You don't buy tickets. You don't purchase or renew your season ticket plans. You don't buy the gear, you don't buy concessions, you don't go out of your way to watch the team on Sundays.

You let the team play in front of dwindling crowds with sagging TV ratings. You send NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell unmistakable signs that the bungling of Lerner and his minions is wilting what has historically been one of the NFL's strongest fan bases.

You, as a lone fan, can't put the screws to Lerner. But as a unified force of disposable income-spending football fans, you can send a message to the guy who can put the screws to Lerner. The one main guy who outranks Lerner in the NFL hierarchy. The one guy who can, if necessary, pressure Lerner into selling the team.

If you're among those who are going to join Dawg Pound Mike in playing to the cameras next Monday, have fun with it. Just don't expect it to make Lerner jump out of his chair or make Eric Mangini sweat bullets.

The real protest that fans can initiate is much quieter. It's the sound of cash registers not ringing and silent televisions on Sunday afternoons.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Randy's last stand

Color me a daylong sucker, but while most Browns fans think Randy Lerner would rather be watching soccer, I think he still cares a great deal about the Browns.

I think this season in particular has gnawed at his stomach like no other. I think the staredown of his team as they left the field at halftime of last Sunday's loss to the Bears was the product of real anger, not something contrived for the cameras.

The problem is, emotional attachment alone doesn't make you a good owner. If it did, we could all own a professional sports team and do quite well at it. The compounding problem is, Lerner doesn't seem to realize that. It's that fact that is killing the Cleveland Browns.

Lerner is stuck between two lines of thinking. On one hand, he's a fan. He's the son of the deceased patriarch of the expansion franchise. He has ties to the Browns going back decades. He has a lot tugging on his heartstrings when it comes to this franchise.

On the other hand, it really seems like he doesn't want to be bothered with the grunt work of organization building. He keeps looking for the one leader who can singlehandedly take the Browns, turn them around and make it all better. In his desperate search for that football mind, he's been swayed by the likes of Phil Savage and Eric Mangini, neither of whom deserved the level of authority they were given.

At this point, it's probably folly to think Lerner is going to reform, that he's going to suddenly develop organizational leadership skills that he hasn't exhibited before. With that in mind, it would appear that Lerner is doomed as an NFL owner, as his Browns continue to sink to horrifying depths that would make an outside observer believe that, sooner or later, something has to give.

But there is one pinhole of light remaining for Lerner. One last stand he can take before casting his ownership regime to the recycle bin of NFL history -- or before someone such as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell forces him to do it.

And the best news for Lerner is, it involves someone else making the football decisions.

From my seat, I can look past all the ineptitude, bad decisions and muddying of the Browns name that has occurred on Randy Lerner's watch if he will make his last effort to put a winner on the field his best one.

Lerner needs to use his inherited deep pockets to hire an experienced football organization builder. Keep working on Ernie Accorsi if he's not yet entirely open to coming out of retirement for a few years. If you're going to tap the Patriots for anything, tap them for Floyd Resse, who reportedly was waiting to hear from the Browns last winter.

There is a method to making this happen, and in principle, it's not all that difficult. You find a football organization leader and roster builder with a track record of being really good at what he does, and you hire him to do that job. You don't hire big names or word-on-the-street up-and-comers, and give them more control and responsibility than they've ever had in their careers. That's not foundation-building. That's dice-rolling.

Once the Accorsi or Reese figure is in place, you give him the authority to hire a former coordinator as head coach, or an uber-scout to groom as his successor, because he'll likely have had success making those kinds of judgments about football people.

Even if the foundation-builder Lerner hires is up there in years and only intends to hold the job long enough to get the wheels of progress turning and groom a successor, it's still miles better than what Lerner has right now. It's still miles better than anything the Browns have had since returning to the league 10 years ago.

Experience and competence at the organization's highest rungs tends to directly correlate with success on the field. The last time the Browns had an experienced football man running the show from 30,000 feet was the last time they fielded a contender. Accorsi was the chief architect of the Bernie Kosar-led Browns of 1985-92.

Now, Lerner has a chance to perhaps reunite Accorsi and Kosar as mentor and protege, if he can do enough convincing and wave enough greenbacks around. Kosar might make a fine NFL executive. He certainly has the brains, coupled with a deep desire to return to football. But if Lerner were to hire him as team president or GM outright, it likely would fall under the same general heading of placing authority in the hands of someone who is not adequately trained to handle it.

The final piece of the puzzle is acceptance on the part of Lerner. If the experienced football operations director he hires wants to dismiss Mangini, or if Mangini himself doesn't want to submit to an extra layer of authority, then Mangini is gone with no questions from ownership. If the incoming leader thinks the system is bad and the roster stinks, and he needs to blow it all up and start from scratch, so be it.

If things need to get worse before they get better, it's still an improvement over things getting worse, then declining even further.

For Lerner, the stakes are even higher than wins and losses and ticket sales. The condition in which Lerner leaves the Browns will determine how the Lerner name is remembered in the high-profile pantheon of NFL owners. For all the self-made success Al Lerner created, for all of the Lerner family's philanthropic endeavors, if Randy Lerner leaves the Browns as a mess, that's what the public will associate the Lerner name with from here on out.

Randy knows that. That's a big reason why he has been hesitant to cut his losses, sell the team and move on. But it's becoming clear that the Browns cannot continue in their current state of tumult without increasingly severe levels of fallout reaching Lerner. Sooner rather than later, he'll be forced to the crossroads of either improving the organization or letting go.

Lerner almost certainly has only one bullet left in the chamber. He can probably make one more significant regime change before he is forced to sell the team.

He needs to make this one count. He needs to make the hire he should have made in the first place.