Monday, December 21, 2009

The new czar in town

Mike Holmgren is coming to town. Monday, after nearly a week of meetings and suspense, he accepted the role of Browns team president.

If you want a team czar with football chops, a guy who has won everywhere he's gone, a guy who was a leader -- not a support staffer -- on a Super Bowl winner, Holmgren is your man.

That's good news. But that's not the best news. The best news is who Holmgren is slated to replace as team president.

No, not Mike Keenan. He's the team's main business operations guy, and will transition to the role of chief financial officer.

I'm talking about Randy Lerner.

For way too long now, Lerner has been the Browns' football czar by default. As the team's owner, it has ultimately been up to him to staff the president's, general manager's and head coach's positions. In an organizational setup than began with the hiring of John Collins in 2004 and survived through inertia to this year, the team president was not technically part of the football chain of command, instead leaning more toward the business side of the operation. That removed another layer of authority between the owner and the general manager.

As a result, Lerner's inadequate administrative thumbprint has been all-too-visible on the Browns for the past seven years. From Collins to Phil Savage to Romeo Crennel to Eric Mangini, Lerner kept hiring decision-makers who were untested in, and ultimately proven to be ill-suited for, their job descriptions.

Every Lerner football hire has been a step-up hire. Savage from scouting director to GM. Crennel from coordinator to coach. Mangini was the coach who would be czar, but he turned out to be a very weak czar, so the job fell back to Lerner.

Holmgren is a step-up hire, too. He's never been a team president. But his history in spotlight positions -- and success in those spotlight positions -- suggests that this hire will be a little different.

As team president, Holmgren's job is going to primarily consist of looking at things from the business-cliche "30,000 foot level." His job will be one of vision, team-building and delegation. At first, he might be more involved in the relative minutiae of deciding who should occupy the 53rd spot on the roster, who makes the final cut in training camp and how to best utilize Josh Cribbs. But over time, he'll have his GM and coach making those judgment calls.

Ultimately, Holmgren is in place to eradicate a firmly-entrenched losing culture by installing a system of leadership based on structure, accountability, discipline, and a cultivating a winning attitude from the GM's chair down to the practice squad.

It's something the Browns haven't had in a long, long time: an umbrella-type leader who rules over the Berea facility with an authoritative air. Someone to build standards and a strategic plan for the future, and make sure everyone is living up to that plan. If someone isn't, there are consequences ready and waiting.

With Lerner splitting his time and attention among Cleveland, Long Island and Birmingham, England, and not really having a dominant personality to begin with, he is ill-suited for the role of organizational godfather. Savage survived a coup d'etat of sorts from Collins, leaving him as the organizational go-to guy, but it was evident over the ensuing years that A) his people skills were lacking and B) he was mostly at home in a rental car, jaunting between college towns to scout next year's draft class.

Mangini also has issues with his people skills, and at 38 and with just three previous years as a head coach under his belt, was not experienced enough for the task of singlehandedly running an NFL franchise.

The result was what you'd expect when no one is adequately steering the ship. The often-mentioned "rudderless suck" that has defined the Browns for the past 10 years.

That's the real value of Holmgren. It's not really in his ability to coach X's and O's -- unless he at some point names himself coach, in what would be a pretty blatant mistake on Holmgren's part.

It's not his ability to run a draft-day war room, his roster management, his ability to make trades and free agent signings, or his ability to groom Brady Quinn as an NFL passer.

Holmgren's real value to the Browns, the area in which he needs to succeed above all others, is in finding guys to do all of the above. And then finding guys to replace those guys when they are inevitably hired away by other teams, because you've become one of the league's model franchises and everyone is trying to emulate you.

That's how teams like the Patriots, Colts and Steelers leave the rest of us scratching our heads at their year-in, year-out success, with their ability to take seemingly no-name players and coaches and turn them into hot properties.

It's all in the organizing of the organization. And organization is what the Browns have lacked since returning to the league.

With Holmgren on board, we can now envision a world where Lerner can ping-pong from Long Island to Cleveland to England and back, make sporadic appearances in Berea and at games, hide from the media's microphones, enjoy an afternoon brandy, whatever he wants. And no Browns fan needs to care because Lerner's involvement in the football operations extends only to his writing hand, which he uses to sign the checks.

I don't know about you, but that's a world I can't wait to live in.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A win that's worth the price

At this point in the Browns' seasons, wins are the enemy.

Wins drop you in the draft order. Wins keep Eric Mangini employed, and might even convince Randy Lerner that it's OK to move forward with Mangini as the primary personnel decision-maker.

When you're 1-11 and four games away from euthanizing, burying and forgetting about this season, wins do nothing but provide false hope and impede long-term progress.

On Thursday, the Browns won. They likely did most or all of the above -- deprive themselves of the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, secure Mangini as the coach at the outset of next season, possibly cause Lerner to hold off on hiring a general manager, and made the fans hope, however so slightly, that maybe some faint pulses of light are filtering through the fog that has entrapped this franchise for way too long.

Against 30 other teams, it would have been a meaningless win that did exactly what the evidence says it did -- more harm than good.

But this wasn't the other 30 teams. This was the Pittsburgh Steelers.

If you've lived on either side of this border rivalry between two cities separated by less than 150 miles of interstate, you know the history. Recently, it hasn't been much of a rivalry. The Browns had lost 12 straight to the Steelers, the last win coming at Heinz Field on Oct. 5, 2003.

How long ago was that? The following month, Michigan beat Ohio State 35-21 for their last victory over the Buckeyes to date. That's how long ago.

The Browns hadn't beaten the Steelers in Cleveland since Sept. 17, 2000. How long ago was that? A rookie from Penn State named Courtney Brown was the star of the game with three sacks.

There were excruciating near misses over that span. A 16-13 overtime loss in 2002, when the Steelers had a would-be game winning field goal blocked, but the ball stayed behind the line of scrimmage, allowing for a recovery and successful re-kick. A wild card playoff game at the end of that season in which the Browns held a 17-point second half lead, only to let it evaporate and lose, 36-33. A last-minute Willie Parker touchdown in 2006. A missed Phil Dawson 52-yard field goal attempt in 2007, which would have tied the game as time expired.

There were blowouts, too. Since returning to the NFL in 1999, the Browns have been blanked by the Steelers four times, by scores of 43-0, 22-0, 41-0 and 31-0. They held the Browns to seven points or less another five times.

But the biggest discrepancy of all: over that span, the Steelers have won two Super Bowls. The Browns have managed two winning seasons.

It's been a long, strange, crazy, heartbreaking, confusing, frustrating road for the Browns these past 10 years. The twice-yearly beatings at the hands of the Steelers, the declarations of the rivalry's death by members of the local and national media, all of it just served as the most pointed reminder that the Browns have fallen from glory, and hard. The one-time New York Yankees of professional football had become the Los Angeles Clippers -- a team with losing in its DNA.

Better talent, in the form of star players -- the kind a team is supposed to get when it drafts first overall -- is ultimately the only way the Browns are going to amass the bricks and mortar needed to turn their fortunes around. But that's not all of it. You need talent to win. But you also need to have your heart in it. You have to be invested physically, mentally and emotionally in wanting to win.

Thursday night, we saw for the first time in a long, long time a Browns team that cared. Really, truly cared. Thursday night, we saw a maligned coaching staff leading an offense and defense that was undermanned and undertalented, but still playing like this game meant something. Everyone from one-man wrecking crew Josh Cribbs to unheralded rookies like Marcus Benard started playing like they were sick and tired of losing to the Steelers and finally wanted to do something about it.

The Steelers, for their part, were fighting for their playoff lives. They had lost four straight and had fallen to 6-6 heading into the game. Ben Roethlisberger was a career 10-0 against the Browns. Maybe they viewed this game as a free throw, a chance to relax, get an easy win against a devastated team and right their ship. Or maybe the Steelers really can't bail water fast enough to prevent their ship from sinking.

Whatever happened, the Steelers looked completely frazzled by the different looks that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan threw at them. Roethlisberger was sacked eight times. Rashard Mendenhall was Pittsburgh's leading rusher, amassing a pedestrian 53 yards on 16 carries.

Still, through all of it, Pittsburgh hung tough and remained within a touchdown in the fourth quarter. The fourth quarter is when Roethlisberger, like all great quarterbacks, becomes an escape artist and pulls drive-saving completions out of his nether regions.

Thursday, it wasn't there. Roethlisberger moved the ball, but looked utterly mediocre in doing so. The deadly efficiency with which he normally marches his team on game-winning and game-tying drives was absent. Needing a touchdown to tie with time running thin, he didn't penetrate any further than the Cleveland 39 yard line before David Bowens knocked away a 4th-and-6 pass, essentially sealing the game.

When Bowens knocked the ball away and began celebrating, I knew for certain that it was right for the Browns to win this game. They needed it. They worked for it. They deserved it.

We, as a city of football fans, deserved it.

After the game, Phil Dawson -- the only Brown to experience every loss to the Steelers since 1999 -- was found with moist eyes in the locker room. He had pointed to the fans in the Dawg Pound after the game, the ones who were sticking around in the open lakefront freezer, steaming the wind-chilled sub-zero air with their trademark barking.

"This was for them," Dawson told The Plain Dealer. "I just wanted to let them know how much I appreciate them. It was a moment like this that you want to share with them. I hope the people in Cleveland enjoy this one because they really deserve it."

High emotion at the end of a miserably cold game near the end of a lost season. Tears of joy after finally breaking the shackles of submission. Dawg Pound fans returning the sound and fury of the late '80s to the shores of Lake Erie, for at least one night.

That's why this is still a rivalry. That's why Thursday night was worth a couple of spots in the draft. That's why this game means more.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Opportunity knocks

From the start of training camp until the end of November, Delonte West was a man on the edge.

Delonte was a man on the edge emotionally, on the edge of domestic turmoil and on the edge of pending legal proceedings from his September weapons-related arrest. Because of that, he was a man on the edge with the Cavs. He has spent the past few months hovering around the team's fringes, involved, yet not all that involved.

Early in the season, he was practicing with the team, but not activated as Danny Ferry and Mike Brown continued to move very cautiously with their troubled player. Aided by pressure on Brown from LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal, he returned for a Halloween showdown with Charlotte. He scored 13 points, but was largely ineffective in the ensuing three games. Following the Cavs' win in New York on Nov. 6, he was deactivated again, missing another four games in the span of 11 days.

It was during this time that Ferry reportedly made a hard push for Stephen Jackson, who had grown disenchanted with the Golden State Warriors. Jackson is a swingman with his own checkered past, but loads of scoring talent and defensive ability. Jackson is 31 and signed to a horrible contract that will saddle his team for another three seasons as Jackson creeps into his mid-30s, but at a time when the Cavs were about to resign themselves to moving forward without Delonte, Jackson was a worthwhile acquisition to pursue. Statistically, he could replace West and then some.

But Warriors coach and organizational overlord Don Nelson had other ideas. The Charlotte Bobcats were offering Vladimir Radmanovic and Raja Bell, who could both help the Warriors at some point this season. The Cavs were reportedly offering up the unreliable West on the condition of a buyout. If Nelson turned down West, the Cavs' remaining stable of tradeable pieces included Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who would fit Nelson's uptempo style like a down jacket fits a Caribbean cruise, and other assorted bits and pieces at the end of the bench.

To put it another way, all Nelson could hope to gain from the Cavs is cap relief, and cap relief probably wasn't enough for one of the Warriors' two best players. There also might be something to the swirling rumor that Nelson didn't want to reward the malcontent Jackson with a trade to a contender in Cleveland.

Whatever the reason, Jackson is now a Bobcat, and the Cavs were left with Delonte's dicey situation, and the knowledge that how his season plays out might have a great deal to do with how the Cavs' season plays out.

As long as Delonte is a Cav, he's an important part of the team. With a versatile skill set, indefatigable legs and the ability to play relentless defense on bigger guards, he simply brings too many assets to the table to become an extra on the set. There is no real way for a team to reduce its reliance on a player like Delonte, unless it wants to completely replace him with another player.

Stephen Jackson and Delonte West together is an either/or proposition. With Jackson on the roster, Delonte would have been reduced to a bit player, making do with the scraps of playing time that Brown throws his way, hoping for a teammate's strained groin or pulled hamstring to bump him up in the rotation. Every time Delonte arrived for a game or practice, he would have found himself surrounded by reminders that he's unreliable, damaged goods, that his superiors have deemed him unfit for a key role on a winning team.

It might have been the ruination of Delonte's career as we know it. Or at the very least, the ruination of his time with the Cavs.

Delonte needed another chance. He needed opportunity to knock yet again. And that's exactly what he received when Nelson decided to send Jackson to Charlotte instead of Cleveland. In the weeks following Jackson's trade to Clarlotte, Delonte has re-emerged as the do-everything handyman who was so critical to the Cavs' success last year.

A week ago Saturday, Delonte pulled a 10-point, 10-assist game out of nowhere, helping the Cavs rout the Mavericks. He followed it up with an eight-point game in a blowout win over Phoenix.

This past Friday against Chicago, he had an emotional downswing, going scoreless and playing just over five lethargic minutes before Brown pulled him. Earlier in the season, it might have foretold another two-week inactive spell. But Delonte delivered his most encouraging signs yet on Sunday.

Not only was he active for Sunday's win over the Bucks, he was the MVP of the game. In 24 minutes, he scored 21 points, helping the Cavs to erase an early 11-0 deficit and spurring an unreal 29-0 run that turned the rest of the game into a scrimmage.

It's not time to get swept up in Redz-mania just yet. He's still mired in a volatile point in his life. He's still afflicted with bipolar disorder and will be for the remainder of his life. Chances are, he's going to miss games between now and the end of the season, whether it is due to emotional issues or his pending legal proceedings. It would be folly to assume that a uptick in game performance signals the all-clear.

What the past four games does demonstrate is that Delonte is starting to play with the same confidence he showed last year. His recovery between the Chicago and Milwaukee games would seem to show that he's figuring out how to manage his emotional swings effectively -- at least to the point that one bad day doesn't become two bad weeks.

No one -- not even Delonte himself -- knows if he can continue on this upward trend for the long haul. But it looks like Delonte is going to try as hard as he can to stay on the court and deliver more games like he has over the past week and a half.

Perhaps out of necessity more than a willingness to trust in Delonte's stability, the Cavs are giving him the chance to stick around and reclaim his status from last year. There are many ways it could go right, and many ways it could go wrong. The certainty is the four-plus months of basketball left to be played between now and the start of the playoffs, time enough for just about any course of events to unfold.

For now, the relationship between the Cavs and Delonte West might be a little short on trust, but long on need. Delonte is seizing the chance to play himself back into the meat of Brown's rotation, and it seems like the Cavs are backing off the search for his replacement.

If Delonte stay put, the rewards and risk are both significant. The relationship between player and team needs to remain constructive and productive through June if the Cavs are to have a realistic shot at winning the 2010 NBA title.