Thursday, September 20, 2012

An inside job

The Browns are one of the NFL’s pillar franchises. Years of modern-era losing haven’t changed that.

Yes, the Browns entered the NFL in 1950, 30 years after its inception. Yes, the Browns played their first four seasons in another league. Yes, Cleveland had a handful of other NFL franchises prior to the Browns – most notably the Rams from 1933 to 1945.

And yes, the current Browns aren’t even the original Browns. We don’t need to pick that that scab right now.

But with four NFL titles and 11 NFL Championship Game appearances prior to the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, in addition to a clean sweep of All-America Football Conference championships in all four years the league existed, the Browns are held in the same historical esteem as franchises such as the Packers, Bears and Giants, all of whom entered the league in the 1920s and are, essentially, among the league’s founding franchises.

The idea of the Packers ever playing home games in a dome is ludicrous. The Bears may play in a renovated Soldier Field that looks something like a UFO landing on the Parthenon, but the Monsters of the Midway still play in the elements.

The Giants? Same story. New stadium, still outdoors, and will likely always be outdoors. The NFL didn’t make a dome a condition when they awarded Super Bowl XLVIII to the New York market. MetLife Stadium, the home of the Giants and Jets, will host the game on Feb. 2, 2014.

So why do the Browns need a dome?

This week, incoming Browns owner Jimmy Haslam met with Cleveland city council members to, among other things, open the door for discussion on ways to improve Cleveland Browns Stadium as a revenue-generating venue for the region. Among the topics Haslam broached was the possibility of placing a retractable roof on the stadium, allowing year-round use of the facility, and possibly making Cleveland a more attractive destination for large-scale events that need the space provided by a domed stadium.

It’s a touchy subject in Cleveland, a city that prides itself on an old-school football ethos. Tough players and tougher fans braving the late-season elements in our wind-whipped lakefront freezer box. It’s how we’ve enjoyed (and not enjoyed) football since football was first played in front of an audience in this town.

But that viewpoint is at odds with the pragmatic need to get more dollars out of a facility that sits essentially vacant for well over 300 days a year. Cleveland Browns Stadium has the potential to become a much more prolific money maker for the region, but its lakefront location and exposure to the elements severely limit the breadth of its usefulness.

As it is, Cleveland doesn’t have a lot in the way of prime exposition and event space. That outlook will certainly improve once the new convention center opens, but the city will still lack a venue to attract major spectator events that need a controlled environment and more seating capacity than the 20,562 seats that Quicken Loans Arena can offer.

That’s where a domed Cleveland Browns Stadium would fit into the picture. These are among the events a dome would allow Cleveland to pursue:

The Super Bowl. Obviously, this would be the king crab to catch. It’s the premier single-day sporting event in the world, and brings with it two weeks of related activities and events for the host city. In the event Cleveland could land a Super Bowl, it would likely be a one-off event, like it was for cities such as Detroit and Jacksonville. But for the only NFL city to neither have hosted a Super Bowl nor have had a team play in a Super Bowl, it’s time for a football town like Cleveland to take a long-overdue turn reaping some benefits from the NFL’s title game.

The Final Four. Much like the Super Bowl, it brings with it a slew of related events. In addition, Final Four cities often host a regional final bracket the year before, as a dry run for the following year. So landing a Final Four could bring two Marches’ worth of events to Cleveland.

A minor college bowl game. If Detroit can host the Little Caesars Bowl, why couldn’t Cleveland attempt to launch something similar? It wouldn’t attract marquee programs, but for a 3 p.m. time slot on ESPN2 a few days after Christmas, you could attract a six-win Big Ten or Big 12 school to face off against a school from the MAC or Conference USA. If there is one thing we’ve learned over the past decade or so, it’s that you can never have too many bowl games.

The Big Ten Championship Game. Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis will host the game through 2015. After that, if Cleveland wanted to take a turn hosting it every few years, it would likely need a dome. Given the size of the Ohio State fan base in Northeast Ohio, and the frequency with which OSU figures to play in the Big Ten title game over the years, it would be a logical fit to have Cleveland in any rotation for the game.

The MAC Championship Game. Detroit hosts it right now because Detroit has the facility to host it. Cleveland is the home of the MAC’s headquarters and has hosted the MAC basketball tournaments since 2000. It would seem that if Cleveland had a facility capable of hosting the MAC football title game, the conference could make a fairly airtight case for moving the game here.

Cleveland State football. It’s a subject that gets bounced around in assorted forums from time to time. Could and should Cleveland State take the necessary steps to alter its charter and field a football program for the first time since the school was formed in 1964? If Cleveland had an indoor venue with an artificial surface that could stand up to the wear and tear of back-to-back Saturday-Sunday football weekends without turning into a mud pit, the city would have an ideal stage on which to launch CSU football.

Other local rivalry games. The annual John Carroll-Baldwin Wallace game? The St. Ignatius-St. Edward Holy War? Playing them under the bright, covered lights at Cleveland Browns Stadium could add some spotlight appeal to the regions other big games.

A spectrum of other events. A covered stadium could also put Cleveland in the running for political conventions in presidential election years, stadium concert tours (for the few bands that still have them), stadium rodeo tours, WrestleMania and other events.

In reality, the movement to put a dome on Cleveland Browns Stadium has very little to do with the Browns. Whether they put a good or bad product on the field, they’ll be good or bad whether they play in the open air, under a dome, on grass, on artificial turf or in a parking lot.

This has everything to do with acknowledging that while the Browns might be the primary tenant of their stadium, their games are, or should be, only one category in a catalog of events that could, take place at the stadium.

Cleveland isn’t Green Bay, or Chicago, or New York, or Philadelphia. What we need out of our stadium is different from those cities. We’re a post-industrial rust belt town with a shrinking population and negative national reputation. We’re fighting an uphill battle against more attractive destinations for revenue-generating and profile-enhancing events. Our civic leaders need to fashion better tools to make that happen. A domed stadium is one such tool.

Making it happen will certainly cost money – possibly between $100 million and $400 million. The sin tax that built the stadium and still pays for its upkeep expires in 2015, so financing the project could mean another appeal to voters. However, since Haslam is taking the lead on this, at least in the idea phase, perhaps there is a chance that he’ll front some of the cost. We can hope. We can dream.

If the dome ends up becoming a reality, we’ll all miss the snowy, windy late-season games on the lakefront. It’s part of our football heritage. But times have changed, and poetic vision of frozen turf and snowflakes dancing around the heads of 70,000 fans steaming the frigid air with their collective breath has to give way to the dollars and cents of the matter.

Cleveland needs money. A domed stadium can generate more money than a stadium without a dome. It’s more spreadsheet than Shakespeare. But that’s where we are. And that’s why we, as a region, should find it in our best interest to put down our scarves and hats, and support a move indoors.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The burden of stewardship

The legendary baseball innovator Branch Rickey once noted that a baseball team in any city is a quasi-public institution.

The quote -- included in Ken Burns' 1994 documentary series "Baseball" -- was in reference to the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn for Los Angeles in 1958. Rickey said that in Brooklyn, the Dodgers were "public" without the "quasi."

But I'm more concerned about the first part of Rickey's quote. Any sports franchise in any town is indeed quasi-public. Though Rickey was speaking about the special connection the Dodgers had with Brooklyn, the only true "public" major league sports franchise in North America is the Green Bay Packers, owned by shareholders. Every other sports franchise toes the line between private business and public entity. They are privately-owned, for-profit enterprises that are held in the same esteem -- or higher esteem, in most cities -- as publicly-funded institutions.

To boot, most teams now play in publicly-funded and owned facilities.

Pro sports teams are about as public as you can get while still having a private owner. The ownership group has to answer to no one regarding how the team is run. Yet in a very real sense, the owners are stewards of a public entity. If the team is not successful, fans don't show up at games, which hurts downtown game-night business at bars and restaurants, necessitates fewer game-day employees inside the stadium, and results in a far-smaller injection of revenue into the local economy than if the team had been contending.

Losing also takes a psychological toll. As the years of losing mount, fans become more jaded and less willing to believe that any sign of success is more than a temporary radar-blip that will be gone within a few weeks or months. Any hope of a buzz-creating pennant race is short-circuited and replaced by, at best, cautious optimism. And cautious optimism doesn't sell tickets.

Welcome to the world of the Cleveland Indians under Larry Dolan and his son Paul. They purchased the team in 2000 from Dick Jacobs for $323 million. Since 2002, when the so-called "Era of Champions" was formally imploded and the Dolan regime put their thumbprint on the franchise, the team has managed two winning seasons and one playoff appearance. That would be exactly the same number of winning seasons and playoff appearances the Lerner family managed in 13 seasons of owning the Browns.

This season doesn't look like it will reverse that trend. The 2012 Indians, supposedly the team that was going to turn the corner toward contention after showing some flashes of promise in 2011, have been all but scuttled on the rocks. An 11-game losing streak has plunged the team nine games off the pace in the AL Central as of Sunday. Unless Manny Acta's crew has a few miracles up their sleeve, the Indians are headed for their fifth straight .500-or-under season.

But the problems go much deeper than that. Years of nearly-fruitless drafting have rendered the farm system all but impotent. The system can crank out the occasional Jason Kipnis, a quality player with all-star upside, but the last true franchise-caliber position players to come through the Indians farm system were Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez 20 years ago.

The trading hasn't been much better. If you can't draft a organizational backbone, you have to trade for it. To that end, two of the most pivotal recent trades -- the 2008 trade of C.C. Sabathia to the Brewers and the 2009 trade of Cliff Lee to the Phillies -- have three and four years later yielded a grand total of Michael Brantley thus far. You can attribute some of it to bad luck, like Carlos Carrasco's Tommy John surgery and the ongoing severe arm problems of the recently-released Jason Knapp, but for the trades two Cy Young Award winners to yield an signle starting outfielder between them is a horrendous development.

The end result at the big-league level is predictable: A roster that simply lacks the firepower to keep up with the well-endowed White Sox and Tigers for 162 games. A fan base that does not believe in the product, and is voting with their wallets, planting the Indians at the bottom of baseball in attendance all season long.

Whenever Mark Shapiro or another member of the Tribe brass appears in the media, they have a list of reasons why the team is performing poorly at the gate: It’s a bad economy. Small market teams have to deal with some harsh realities. Their latest focus group says they need to offer more deals with parking and concessions. The success of the ‘90s was due to a perfect storm of circumstances that aren’t likely to be repeated.

The trouble is, the “small market blues” argument only holds so much water. When you consider the ease of getting in and out of Cleveland by car – as opposed to just about any larger city with more traffic – the Indians can draw from as far away as Canton, Sandusky and Erie, Pa. for a midweek night game during the summer. They have a pool of about 3 million people within a two-hour car ride who can realistically attend games. When you combine the Cleveland, Akron and Canton markets, it is the 18th largest metropolitan conglomeration in the country.

The “bad economy” argument is only so watertight, too. Yes, the economy is far worse than it was in the mid-‘90s. Yes, more people are financially strained and have far less in the way of disposable income. But that ignores the biggest number of all: 48.

That would be the number of years since the last Cleveland championship in any major-league sport. The fans of this region are so hungry for a ticker-tape parade, if they think one of their teams has a real shot at winning a title, the turnstiles will click. But you have to give them a reason to believe.

That brings us back to the Dolans and the question of whether they are good stewards of the Indians franchise anymore.

The fans seem to be done with the revolving-door rebuilds. If this offseason brings another purge of veterans for prospects, the fans are only going to become that much more jaded and cynical. Joe Casual Fan doesn’t want to hear about three-to-five years from now anymore. He’s been hearing about it on almost all Cleveland sports fronts for the balance of the past decade.

The only way to reverse the downward spiral is for ownership to commit tens of millions of dollars to improving the 25-man roster. An infusion of cash has to come from somewhere that will allow the Indians to invest heavily in the current product. After years of minimal results from the farm system, I really don’t see any other way for the team to lure the fans back en masse.

That has been a primary problem with how the Dolans have run things since 2002. They are solely reliant on what the team makes at the gate to sustain the on-field product. That’s fine, as long as the team is drawing. But when a team gets as far off the tracks as the Indians have, ownership needs to have a reservoir of rainy-day funds. Something has to jump-start success, and it’s not going to be the fans. That’s not the way it works in business. The proprietor has to bear the risk, make the investment, and get people interested in what they’re selling.

In modern times, multi-billionaires make the best team owners. The local-guy-made-good is a touching story, but if the local guy isn’t sitting on the type of fortune that will allow him to dip into the coffers for some well-placed acquisitions, the chances of enduring success go way down. At this point, I don’t see any way for the Dolans to rescue the Indians other than opening the checkbook and spending.

The ‘90s were indeed a perfect storm for the Indians. A robust economy, a new stadium and a team contending for the first time in 40 years. But the stars shouldn’t need to align that perfectly for the Indians to enjoy an era of contention again. The Indians should be able to contend even when the economy is sagging. They should be able to outspend a couple of bad moves here and there. And they should be able to put whatever resources are necessary into the farm system to minimize the number of bad moves that they need to outspend.

If the Dolans can’t make that happen, they should acknowledge that they can no longer do right by the Indians franchise, and the fans who haven’t seen a World Series victory in 64 years, and sell the team to owners who have deeper pockets and a desire to keep the team in Cleveland.

Sometimes, the burden of good stewardship is recognizing when you can’t be a good steward anymore.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Time for a change

In 1995, Art Modell used Al Lerner's private jet as a modern-day Appomattox Court House, signing the papers that ceded Cleveland's football franchise to Baltimore.

Lerner was not an active participant in facilitating Modell's move, but he was guilty by association, guilty of providing the house where the murder took place.  Since Lerner's plane was involved in Modell's escape 17 years ago, the Lerner family has been star-crossed in their football pursuits.

In 1998, Al Lerner used his vast wealth as a self-made billionaire to purchase the replacement franchise for the one that departed Cleveland on his jet. He outbid Larry and Charles Dolan, prior to Larry Dolan purchasing the Indians in 2000. From the outset, Lerner spared no expense in trying to give the new Browns everything money could buy. He lured flamboyant executive and Younstown native Carmen Policy away from the 49ers to run the show. Policy brought Dwight Clark with him as his handpicked general manager.

Policy talked a good game, but his organization-building acumen was found to be sorely lacking. Clark was outed as a clueless roster architect. Chris Palmer, their coaching hire, lasted all of two seasons and five victories.

Butch Davis took over, with a resume that included a stint as an assistant on Super Bowl winners in Dallas and as the coach who rebuilt the University of Miami football program as a national power. He led the Browns to their first competitive seasons -- a 7-9 record in 2001 and a 9-7 record with a playoff appearance in 2002, but much like Clark before him, he was exposed as a lousy drafter and an even worse locker-room manager. He was gone by 2005.

It was during Davis' tenure that Al Lerner died of brain cancer. His 2002 passing paved the way for his son, Randy, to take over the family businesses, including the Browns. Randy was a media-shy legacy owner from a privileged background. The rare media exposure he allowed seemed to indicate the junior Lerner was a quiet, intelligent person who was a seriously devoted Browns fan and seriously wanted the team to win.

The trouble is, he wasn't much of a football fan overall, and he wasn't much of a leader. With his personal interest leaning toward British soccer and a lack of desire to oversee the Browns organization on a daily basis, Lerner kept looking for the organizational guru who could take the burden of the Browns off his hands.

Phil Savage. Romeo Crennel. Eric Mangini. Mike Holmgren. They all came to Cleveland with impressive resumes. The first three went the way of Clark and Davis, exposed as poor matches for their roles. Holmgren has thus far overseen 5-11 and 4-12 seasons, and the clock is ticking.

It all doesn't really seem to make sense, given the resumes of the men who have come through Cleveland, tasked with rescuing the once-proud Cleveland Browns name. They came from key positions on successful franchises such as the 49ers, Cowboys, Ravens, Patriots and Packers. They have all failed miserably to this point.

It's as if the Lerner family has been cursed with some kind of anti-Midas touch when it comes to football. Millions upon millions of dollars spent on trying to turn the Browns around, and the net result has been a endless parade of last-place finishes and turnover at key positions.

Which is why the news this past week that Lerner is apparently on the verge of selling the Browns to a group led my Pilot Travel Centers president Jimmy Haslam III is bittersweet.

Selling the Browns before completing a turnaround had to be smong the toughest decision Lerner has ever had to make. Lerner doesn't want his family's name -- associated with success and philanthropy in other arenas -- to go down in history as failure on the NFL stage. He doesn't want his father's legacy to bear the scars. But year after year of losing, year after year of best-laid plans going awry, takes its toll.

In an interview with Scene Magazine last year, Lerner expressed a desire to see the Browns' rebuild through to completion, but "At some point, if things never change, you have to look at yourself and decide if you're the man for the job,"

If this sale happens, Lerner apparently answered that question for himself. In terms of heart and hope, he is the right man for the job. In terms of execution and involvement, he is sorely lacking. The first two qualities make you a good fan. The latter two qualities make you a good executive.

Haslam will become a man of increasing interest in the coming weeks, barring something slamming the brakes on the sale. He's the son of Pilot founder Jim Haslam Jr., who was an offensive lineman on the University of Tennessee's 1951 national championship team. The Haslam family -- which also includes Jim's son and Jimmy's brother Bill Haslam, the current governor of Tennessee -- have donated millions of dollars to the university and are highly active in community causes in their hometown of Knoxville and throughout eastern Tennessee.

Browns fans have a degree of pre-emptive suspicion about Haslam, who has been a minority owner of the Steelers since 2008 and a professed "1,000-percent Steeler fan." Fortunately, we're talking about business, not rooting interests. The reported sale price of the Browns could top $900 million. It's highly doubtful that Haslam would lay down that kind of money with a nefarious ulterior motive aimed at increasing the Steelers' already-vast competitive advantage. Saboteurs make bad businessmen.

Could Haslam move the Browns? The Browns have a lease with the city that runs through 2028. But leases can be broken through litigation and compromise. Modell did it. Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest media market, has been without an NFL team since 1996. It could be a tempting target for an ownership regime that has no ties to Cleveland.

But there is nothing in the Browns' current situation that would indicate that they're ripe for a move. Their stadium is still modern and they sell out every home game despite the poor on-field product. Holmgren told the media on Friday that Lerner asked for and received an assurance that the team would not be moved. That's about all the evidence and assurance you can ask to receive, short of getting it directly from Haslam. If and when this sale becomes final, Haslam will appear at a press conference, where the subject is sure to come up.

Who stands to risk the most from an ownership change? It could be Holmgren himself, and his handpicked staff. Haslam will be eager to make his mark as an NFL owner, and if the Browns once again disappoint on the field this season, the odds of Haslam cleaning house and bringing in his own people go way up.

As it is, Holmgren was brought in to serve as the organizational figurehead because Lerner is so camera-shy. With a new owner, a new dynamic develops with Holmgren, and that might be enough to hasten Holmgren's exit from the organization.

You should be more concerned about the futures of GM Tom Heckert and head coach Pat Shurmur anyway. They are the primary football decision-makers. It is within the owner's rights to hire his own people, but it would still be another chapter in a Browns story frought with instability and turnover. The revolving door has to stop at some point.

There is always uncertainty with any change at the highest levels of an organization. But in this case, the uncertainty of what Haslam brings to the table is probably preferable to the known quantity of the Lerner family. No one wants to see Randy Lerner go off gently into that good night as a football failure. But he and his dad had 13 years to get this right, and they never did. It is time for someone else to come aboard and captain the ship. It has been time for quite a while.

Monday, July 02, 2012

The guessing game

Mock drafts, like NCAA Tournament brackets, have been swept up in the fantasy sports culture. If your team is picking high in the draft, no matter the sport, you probably spent the weeks and months leading up to the draft reading reports and analyzing mock drafts until your bloodshot eyes scream for Visine.

As a result, you know exactly who the experts say should be selected at each pick. You've identified the best and the best of the rest, and you will become very testy if your team reaches outside of that consensus-designated boundary.

For the 2012 NBA Draft, the national basketball pundits had identified Kentucky forward Anthony Davis as the single biggest prize, a deadbolt-lock to go first overall. After Davis, they had identified a group of five other prospects as suitable selections for the teams that followed -- including the Cavaliers, picking at No. 4.

So we in Cleveland set our sights on a small selection of prospects and made up our minds that we'd be happy -- in varying degrees, depending on who you're talking to -- with any member of that group. If the Cavs took Kentucky forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Florida guard Bradley Beal, North Carolina forward Harrison Barnes, Connecticut center Andre Drummond or Kansas forward Thomas Robinson, some of us would have been less thrilled than others depending on the specific selection, but we could at least convince ourselves that the Cavs got one of the best players in the draft, and had secured a major building block for the future.

Then came draft night. And we found out that Cavs GM Chris Grant wipes his nose on mock drafts.

A year after causing a stir by reaching to select Tristan Thompson with the No. 4 pick, Grant did it again by reaching to select sophomore Syracuse guard Dion Waiters.

A report by writer and former Cavs beat reporter Brian Windhorst said the Cavs had whittled the No. 4 pick down to two players -- Kidd-Gilchrist and Waiters. When the Bobcats selected Kidd-Gilchrist with the second pick, the Cavs' decision was made for them.

The Cavs' front office is apparently very high on Waiters -- a prospect who granted no workouts to individual teams, possibly because he already had a promise from a lottery team. Whatever information the Cavs were able to amass on Waiters came from game film and the NBA draft combine in Chicago last month.

Whatever the Cavs saw sold them on Waiters' NBA potential, not just as a competent starter, but a first-option scorer on a winning team -- in other words, a legitimate star player. A player who was worthy of the fourth overall pick.

But convincing a fan based that was primed for names such as Barnes, Kidd-Gilchrist and Beal is going to take a bit more work. The Cavs are asking the fan base to take a leap of faith and see the star guard waiting to emerge from the shell of a backup combo guard, which was Waiters' role at Syracuse. A backup combo guard who, at 6'-4" and 215 pounds, is shorter and thinner than the prototypical NBA shooting guard.

As a fan, you flash back to Jim Paxson referring to Dajuan Wagner as "Allen Iverson with muscles," then try to swat that memory away. Do the likes of Iverson and Dwyane Wade prove that shorter combo guards can succeed in the NBA, or are they supremely-talented exceptions, thereby proving that shorter guards are indeed fighting an uphill battle against bigger, stronger competition?

Waiters may not have started, but at 24 minutes per game as a sophomore, he did play starter's minutes. He averaged 12.6 points per game, which projects to about 19 PPG in 36 minutes -- a more-than-respectable output for a realistic NBA workload. So he can score. And, heck, Wagner would likely have become a productive offensive force in the NBA had his career not been derailed by a severe intestinal disorder. Talent is talent.

But there's that nagging issue of Waiters' lack of size, and the fact that he very nearly brought Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim to his wit's end as a freshman with his utter refusal to play defense. Waiters' attitude reportedly improved as a sophomore, but his effort and competency at the defensive end bears watching.

It could be that the Cavs drafted a super-sub. Waiters might find himself hopelessly overmatched at the defensive end by bigger, stronger NBA two-guards. His NBA calling might be the exact same job he held in college -- coming off the bench for a quick-burst shot of offense against the other team's backups.

It's a necessary role on a winning team. If the offense stagnates, you need a player who can come into the game, take the ball and put it in the basket. It can force the other team to pull their backups and reinsert the starters sooner rather than later, which can work to your advantage later in games, and especially later in hard-fought playoff series.

If Waiters pans out as a new-generation Vinnie Johnson, the Cavs certainly could have done worse. But if a top-five pick yields a non-starter in any way, shape or form, it's a questionable use of resources.

After the Waiters pick, the news feeds were still churning with rumors that the Cavs were feverishly trying to make some kind of move. At first, we heard reports that they were still in hot pursuit of Harrison Barnes, selected at No. 7 by Golden State. Those rumors died off fairly quickly. But the Cavs did make a move.

At No. 17, they traded their three remaining picks -- Nos. 24, 33 and 34 -- to Dallas for the rights to North Carolina center Tyler Zeller. The pick was met with less criticism than the Waiters pick, but it still generated some controversy for those who thought three picks was too steep of a price to pay.

The Cavs, like most teams with fours pick, don't want to sign that many rookies at one time. Each NBA team can only carry 15 players, and teams as a general rule don't want almost a third of the roster occupied by rookies -- not even rebuilding teams like the Cavs.

It makes sense, then, to take your remaining picks and trade them for one player who you believe can make a real difference to your team. Zeller is a 7-footer who lacks girth, and might have a limited ability to pack on more muscle, but he is a polished four-year senior with a reputation for good post moves, a solid midrange jumper and a high basketball IQ.

Most of us probably would have been satisfied if the Cavs came out of last week's draft with one safe pick and one calculated-risk pick. The trouble is, most of us wanted the safe pick at 4 and the risky pick at 24. Instead, we got a roll of the dice at 4 and a trade-up for a safer pick at 17.

Myself, I really don't care if Chris Grant, Byron Scott and the rest of the Cavs' decision-makers walk to their own beat when it comes to building a roster. But the beat better lead to sweet music in May and June sometime in the foreseeable future.

Right now, all we have is a front office with a hard-to-decipher philosophy on drafting, and a fan base that can only scratch their heads, shrug their shoulders and do their best to try and trust that Grant and his cohorts know what they're doing.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

LeBron was right

LeBron James was right. The way he left was wrong, but his reasoning was right. He needed better teammates to win a title.

Not because Dwyane Wade is better than Mo Williams, or Chris Bosh is better than Zydrunas Ilgauskas. But because LeBron respects those guys in a way he didn't respect any of his teammates here. Because the Cavs never had a superstar-commanding presence like Pat Riley in the front office.

We thought LeBron signed a shortened contract extension in 2006 because he wanted to pressure the Cavs front office to remain aggressive in building a contender around him. Actually, he signed the shortened extension to give him an escape hatch, which he used two years ago.

There was never any real sense of urgency for LeBron while he was here. Obviously, he wanted to win. But he didn't need to win. How could LeBron develop any sense of desperation when he was surrounded by legions of people both inside and outside the Cavs organization who would do anything to placate him? When he looked at the roster and saw nobody he viewed as close to an equal? When that 2010 escape pod was fueled up and ready to launch, should he decide to use it?

He simply couldn't win a title here. He didn't respect the organization enough to get desperate, to fight tooth-and-nail for a championship.

That all changed when he went to Miami, when he was faced with upholding the legacy of Riley, when he shared a locker room with Wade and Bosh, two adopted brothers from the 2003 draft class. Wade is now 30 and his body is starting to wear down from the years of brutal punishment absorbed on countless kamikaze drives into the lane. His game is gradually eroding under the weight of deteriorating ankles, knees and shoulders. In a couple of years, Wade might be a slow, depleted, pain-wracked has-been on retirement's doorstep.

Somehow, cementing the legacy of a close friend, someone you view as a competitive equal, is infintely more motivating than trying to do the same for Mo Williams or Anderson Varejao.

The first NBA title for LeBron was the culmination of two years of growth. After seven years in the cocoon of Cleveland, where no one carried the sway to demand he suffer some hard knocks and grow up, he left town in one of the most immature, self-aggrandizing ways imaginable, making his departure into an hourlong spectacle on national TV.

Then, when the public turned on him and the media made him into a villain, he added fuel to the fire by spending much of the 2010-11 season whining about how nobody likes him, how everyone wanted him to fail.

Then the Heat lost the 2011 NBA Finals to Dallas after holding a 2-1 series lead, mostly because LeBron's team disappeared in the fourth quarters of the final three games.

The summer of 2011 was the nadir for LeBron. He took a major gamble abdicating his throne in Cleveland to hook up with two other superstars in a setting where he would face extreme criticism for failure. And that's exactly what was happening.

In Cleveland, that's where we thought the story ended. LeBron the overhyped crybaby who lacked the fortitude and icy resolve to ever become a true champion, like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.

It's true that LeBron lacks the nasty streak of Jordan or Bryant. He doesn't have an internal gland that manufactures competitive fury. But to say he's a wimp who lacks the heart and stomach to be a champion is, at the expense of Cleveland's collective schadenfreude, flat-out wrong.

What motivates LeBron? Go back to his high-school days at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron. As an only child, LeBron craved a sense of belonging and togetherness within a group, which he found with his high-school teammates en route to three state titles.

In Cleveland, he never had that. He had a small army of people looking to him, asking him to be the savior -- teammates, the coaching staff, the front office, a fan base starving for a championship parade. As the saying goes, it's lonely at the top. LeBron resented the burden placed on him. He longed to recapture the special relationship he and his teammates had at SVSM. In the NBA, it's all but impossible, but he figured the closest he could come was to partner with Wade and Bosh in Miami.

Which brings us to the 2012 Finals, Wade on the wrong side of 30 and Bosh pulling himself back from an abdominal strain suffered in the second round to average 14 points and 9 rebounds for the series.

Everything that LeBron experienced in the two years since he left Cleveland finally clicked. The criticism, the failure, hitting emotional bedrock, learning from experience, going through painful rounds of self-discovery. The result: He finally played like a man possessed with the desire to taste championship champagne. He neutralized Oklahoma City's beefy interior. He mauled James Harden, who is one of the best perimeter defenders in the game. He outplayed Kevin Durant, points per game totals aside.

For the first time, we saw LeBron play hungry, desperate, obsessed with getting the ring that had eluded him for nine years. For the first time since high school, LeBron had tapped into what truly motivates him. He had found a new band of brothers, and he couldn't let them down again.

That's not to say LeBron is a selfless saint. We only need to go back to the summer of 2010 to remind ourselves that's not the case. But he is anything but a lone-wolf assassin. He needs to belong before he can need to win.

While we all would have rather LeBron's maturation happen on the Cavs' watch, at least it happened, and he finally overcame his demons enough to win a ring. If it represents a corner turned, LeBron and the Heat will probably win several more. Father Time will probably prevent LeBron from equalling Jordan's six, but three or four isn't out of the question.

It's time to throw away the 2010 images of LeBron, sitting across from Jim Gray as he announced he was taking his talents to South Beach, then talking about winning five, six, seven titles like it was as easy as breathing. It is a different superstar we saw this spring. One who grew up and finally appreciated how difficult it is to win a title, how much you need to care, how much you need to find what makes you care.

Even with all the bridges burned between LeBron and Cleveland, it's still pleasing to see him realize his potential as a champion. He is, quite simply, the most gifted basketball player to ever set foot on a court.

If LeBron went down in history alongside ringless court jester Charles Barkley instead of the game's true royalty, that would have been a crime against basketball. If you think any differently, you need to take off the Cleveland-colored glasses and look again.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The quarterback puzzle

Seneca Wallace is right. Someone has to go.

With the Browns presently carrying quarterbacks Colt McCoy, Thaddeus Lewis and Wallace behind presumed starter Brandon Weeden, someone is the odd man out. Chances are, it won't be Lewis, who rides the bench for cheap, and who team president Mike Holmgren seems to like as a developmental quarterback.

That means Colt and Wallace are left to battle for the No. 2 slot behind Weeden. Somebody is going to end up traded or released between now and the season opener against Philadelphia on Sept. 9.

My question is, why not both?

It has very little to do with Colt's brother, Case, pre-emptively spouting off on Twitter following what turned out to be a fake ESPN report that Colt had been traded to the Eagles. It has very little to do with the notion that you can't keep your current starter and your ex-starter in the same locker room, for fear of fracturing the team. It has very little to do with anything that spews forth from Wallace's maw, which tends to be open a little too much at times.

It has everything to do with the simple facts of the situation.

Holmgren and/or GM Tom Heckert and/or owner Randy Lerner, depending on who you believe, pushed for the selection of Weeden at the 22nd pick precisely because the mounting organization-wide opinion was that Colt lacked the necessary physical tools to excel as an NFL QB. He didn't have the arm to make all the necessary throws. He didn't possess the reflexes to make split-second decisions. His lack of height exacerbated the other two problems. Wallace, at 5'-11" and just over 200 pounds, isn't in a much better position.

In short, the Browns had a pair of short, suspect-armed, quick-footed, scrambling quarterbacks who would just as soon make plays with their legs. Weeden is at the other end of the spectrum. He's a mountain of a man compared to Colt and Wallace -- 6'-4", 225 pounds with a long bullwhip of a throwing arm. He's going to make his dropback, make his read and throw the ball. His legs are only mobile enough to shuffle around in the pocket, perhaps buying a couple seconds to make a throw before the pass rush closes in.

So if you're going to give Weeden the first-team reps during OTAs, if you're presumably going to make him the first-team QB in training camp, if all signs point to Weeden under center on Sept. 9, barring a cataclysmic turn of events, why would you take out an insurance policy in the form of two quarterbacks who have completely different playing styles from the starter?

If Weeden were to suffer an injury, the Browns' entire offense would have to adjust on the fly to a QB with a completely different playing style. Maybe a veteran offense could make the transition. The 49ers of the 1980s won with both pocket-passing Joe Montana and fleet-footed Steve Young under center. But for an offense full of youngsters, in just its second year of learning the intricate West Coast Offense scheme, putting them in a position to potentially go from protecting a rifleman to throwing downfield blocks for a scampering human pinball doesn't seem like a recipe for success.

The better option, it would seem, would be to cut ties with Wallace and Colt -- ideally trading at least one of them -- and bringing in a veteran backup who is a dropback passer in the mold of Weeden. Free agent A.J. Feeley, who is well-schooled in the West Coast Offense, would seem like a logical fit. He's 35, so he wouldn't be more than a stopgap. He's 8-10 in his career as a starter. But at least he'd offer some degree of continuity in the event he had to step in and play. And for a young team that still doesn't figure to do any contending this year, continuity is one of the most important seeds to sow and cultivate. Lack of continuity, lack of stability and lack of organizational philosophy, have been smothering the Browns since they returned to the league 13 years ago.

Why give the gremlins a chance to creep back in?

If you still want to hold onto Colt with the idea that he might not get the job done as a starter, but he could be a quality backup, ask yourself the difference between a starter and a backup.

One play. One James Harrison shot to the head. One wrong-way knee twist. One rolled ankle. That's the difference between clipboard duty and the starting assignment -- perhaps for the rest of the season.

So if Colt is an inadequate starter in your book, he should be an inadequate backup, too. Same goes for any other quarterback. If you won't trust him to lead the team onto the field, you shouldn't trust him to wear the ballcap and hold the clipboard.

And even if Colt develops into a QB who is capable of starting and playing at a reasonably high level, he still won't develop as a plug-in replacement for Weeden.

It's simply the decision the Browns' brass has made: They wanted a tall, big-armed pocket passer. If that's the template for Holmgren and Heckert's ideal QB, Colt isn't that, and Wallace isn't that.

Even if it means bringing in a stale retread like Feeley, it still means a much-needed fresh start for the bench portion of the Browns' QB corps -- which is very nearly as important as the fresh start Weeden is giving them in the starting role.

Re-entering the living world

After 16-plus months, I'm going to try to re-launch this thing, with at least several columns a month. As always, my columns will also be cross-posted at