Thursday, August 15, 2013

Et tu, Kyrie?

Where have we heard this before?

The Cavaliers’ franchise player is cornered on the subject of his future by a press corps eager to stoke the flames of intrigue by further-moistening the already-sweaty palms of a fan base that knows “fate” as the filthiest of four-letter words.

The player does nothing to allay the anxiety of the fans. He plays it coy, sidestepping the question with ambiguous generalities, such as: “I’m only focused on right now. I’ll worry about the future when it gets here.”

LeBron James tap-danced like that for seven years as a Cav. He now plays for the Miami Heat. Kyrie Irving tried on his tap shoes this past Saturday when reporters questioned him on his future plans at a basketball camp he was conducting in Independence.

Irving can sign a max extension next summer – five years and about $80 million – and the Cavs will almost certainly offer it to him. The only reason “almost” is even worth discussing is due to any unforeseen catastrophic injuries that could threaten his career, life-altering criminal charges or an irreconcilable falling-out with Cavs management. The statistical equivalent of being flattened by the remnants of a satellite falling to Earth, but you at least have to put it on the table.

In other words, he’s getting the offer. Now, whether he’ll accept that offer?

“Right now I’m a Cavalier,” he told the assembled reporters. “This is where I am. All that future stuff, I’m not really worried about. I’m living in the moment right now and I’m just trying to get better with the teammates I have now and make the playoffs for Cleveland. That’s the only thing I can do right now is give it my all as it stands right now and that future stuff, I’m not really worried about it.”

When you read it, the Cleveland parts of your mind start to squirm. You see all the negative space around the words – everything that wasn’t said.

Has he been taking advice from LeBron? Is he planning to hook up with LeBron? Is he planning to hook up with LeBron in a place other than Cleveland? Is Kyrie going to be another burgeoning superstar who ditches Cleveland right as he’s rounding into championship form?

Nobody can give you a cure for that bellyache. If Irving wants out of Cleveland at some point, he’s going to get out, one way or another. That’s how the game is played. When it comes to stars and superstars in the NBA, they get what they want. GMs can be strong-armed, coaches can be fired, rules can be manipulated.

Star power is the fuel that drives the NBA. The owners don’t run the league. Their best players do.

However, despite all of that, and despite the fact that New York-based radio gabber Brandon Tierney tweeted a few weeks ago that Irving is not long for Cleveland (which, to be fair, was rebuked by Irving himself), there are some concrete reasons to not panic just yet.

First of all, the Cavs hold Irving’s rights for three more years. That’s important not just due to the competitive window that Irving could allow, it’s also because it gives the Cavs a breathable window to make any decision that might be necessary.

If Irving were to turn down or table an extension offer next summer, or try to negotiate an early opt-out that would drastically shorten his commitment to the Cavs, the Cavs would have from the summer of 2014 to, at least in theory, the trade deadline in February 2016 to decide what to do. If they decided to trade him, they’d have ample time to shop around and find the best deal.

Yes, that approach could backfire if Irving keeps suffering nagging injuries, or is felled by the aforementioned career-threatening injury, but nowhere does it say that the only guarantees in life are death, taxes and NBA players staying healthy.

And that’s if he were to turn down an extension next summer. While Cleveland sports has a well-documented history of setting negative precedents, it is unheard of to this point for an NBA player to decline an extension coming off his rookie deal. The whole reason the media questioned Kyrie about his future is because the Wizards’ John Wall – one of Irving’s contemporaries in rising crop of young NBA point guards -- recently inked a five-year extension.

Even LeBron extended with the Cavs once, in 2006. When a player is only three years into his career, he still has to wade through so many checkpoints to get to unrestricted free agency – his base contract, teams options, qualifying offers – that it’s easier to take the money sitting right in front of him, even if the team isn’t positioned to make a Finals run at the moment.

It is possible for Irving to be planning an exit strategy from Cleveland as we speak. It is possible that he’s eyeing star-laden rosters and warmer climates, dreaming of rings and bling on South Beach, or Hollywood Boulevard. It’s also possible that Irving is quite happy in Cleveland – right now – and has no overt intention of leaving unless circumstances force his hand. To that end, there is a lot of pressure on Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Bynum to become the supporting cast LeBron never had here.

What we do know is seven years of LeBron made us, and the Cavs, smarter, more streetwise and a heck of a lot more clinical about the NBA, their superstars and their culture of entitlement. No more talk about family and loyalty. This is a business. Every party acts in its own best interest.

Dan Gilbert has said it, and Chris Grant has repeated it, in so many words: The Cavs are not going to let themselves be held hostage by one player again. If Irving turns down an extension or tries to negotiate an escape hatch after two or three years, he’s obviously not committed to the Cavs over the long haul, and as such, is not a reliable franchise cornerstone.

No more waiting around to see if his loyalty increases. No more letting your best player coast all the way to free agency while you have your fingers and toes crossed, hoping that he re-signs. That’s a recipe for disaster. That is the summer of 2010 all over again.

If Irving balks, Irving gets traded. That’s the bottom line. And, yes, it sucks. Because all we want in this town are great players that are motivated to stick it out and try to win us our first title since the height of Beatlemania.

But that emotional response gets in the way of good business. It’s better to punt away a good player for draft picks than to lose him for nothing. And when a Cleveland player turns down an extension, it’s not because he wants more money. He wants more money from a team in a bigger city.

As soon as they discover an ocean of oil under Cleveland and we can start building zillion-dollar skyscrapers like a Great Lakes version of Dubai, that will change. Until then, we have our reality.

Of course, this is all pre-emptive. There is a season of basketball to be played between now and next summer, and for the first time in three-plus years, the Cavs look like they might be worth watching, even for casual fans that tuned the team out as soon as LeBron skipped town.

Kyrie’s words are actually quite wise: Enjoy now. Let tomorrow brings what it brings. Most likely, it will bring a five-year contract extension, negotiated with little drama. But if it doesn’t, the Cavs have a backup plan.

That’s more than we could have said for them during the last superstar’s reign.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The mouthpiece

Since the Browns debuted their underwhelming sequel in 1999, Bernie Kosar has been the team’s most conspicuous extra.

He’s never been given even a supporting role in the organization, but despite his lack of any official football-governing capacity, he’s been active and involved. He frequently appears on local radio and TV stations from the start of training camp through the end of the season, offering his analysis and opinions. You can find him at the stadium on many a Sunday, chatting with players, coaches and executives, obliging media requests – doing anything to stay close to the game he lived and still loves.

The fans reciprocate Kosar’s devotion to the Browns and football. Despite never leading the Browns to the Super Bowl, despite the fact that his career prime lasted all of two years – he was never the same after his elbow was injured in the 1988 season opener – despite the fact that he is quite possibly the fourth-most-accomplished quarterback in Browns history behind Otto Graham, Frank Ryan and Brian Sipe, the fans have elevated Kosar to folk-hero status.

Part of it is his local ties, having grown up a Browns fan in Boardman, Ohio, just outside Youngstown. Part of it is the fact that he declared for the 1985 supplemental draft specifically so the Browns could select him. And part of it is grasping at the strands of what little we have had to cherish about the Browns over the past quarter-century.

Other than the Kosar years, it’s been quite ugly, which makes those gritty Browns teams that were thrice eliminated by Denver on the Super Bowl’s doorstep look all the more legendary.

That’s why Browns Nation is so quick to circle the wagons around Kosar, deflecting criticism and assailing detractors. And now it’s happening again.

Kosar has been the primary color commentator on Channel 3’s preseason telecasts since 2007. Despite the fact that his concussion-induced slurred speech and his appearance – often appearing something like haggard or sleep-deprived – drew criticism and jokes, Kosar’s intellect has remained unquestioned. He is extremely knowledgeable and perceptive about football, and can break plays down like a coach reviewing game film. You are a better fan for having listened to Kosar talk football.

But there is that other part to Kosar. The part that might explain why, despite his very obvious football acumen, he has never been given the opportunity, by any of the revolving-door Browns regimes, to take a more prominent role in the organization.

It’s the part that has dealt with post-concussion brain trauma, an embattled personal and business life, and the effects of alcohol abuse. It’s that aspect of Kosar that should have people stroking their chins after his behavior during last Thursday’s Browns-Rams telecast, wondering aloud if it might be in the best interest of Kosar and the team to keep their relationship strictly casual moving ahead.

In ripping the quality of the Rams receiving corps, he was stating the obvious. Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt are not walking through the door in St. Louis. Those salad days went limp and brown a long time ago.

And maybe Kosar was simply delivering a raw truth when he knocked the play of Rams third-string QB Kellen Clemens. His first name isn’t Roger. His last name isn’t Winslow. The only way he’ll get into any hall of fame is with a purchased ticket. That’s not breaking news.

Maybe he was just trying to be funny when he mocked an apocryphal story about Clemens autographing the mitre of Pope Benedict XVI, which was tied to a true story about Clemens' daughter receiving a blessing from the pope, relayed by Kosar's broadcast partner, Jim Donovan.

And maybe Rams coach Jeff Fisher was just being a big crybaby about all of it during his postgame remarks, when he said he "lost a lot of respect" for Kosar. Fisher's team did lose, after all.

Besides, what's the big deal? So many talking heads mindlessly gush superlatives and sing high hosannas to athletes, it's refreshing to have someone in the booth who gives you his blunt, unvarnished opinion.

But every facet of that argument sidesteps the fundamental truth that Kosar was working on behalf of the Browns. One would assume that, like every other team broadcaster in sports, he was on the payroll, therefore acting in the capacity of a team employee on a team-sanctioned broadcast.

When Kosar made his remarks on the air, he wasn't just speaking on behalf of Bernie Kosar. He was speaking on behalf of the Browns organization. That changes the rules a bit, and mandates a bit more respect be shown the opponent. It's not an afternoon talk show. It's a game telecast.

Joe Banner, as is often the case, gets cast as the bad guy for reprimanding Kosar. But that's Banner's job. If he thinks his organization's reputation has been sullied, he needs to take steps to make it right. He's the one who has to meet face-to-face with other team executives at league meetings, not Kosar.

Kosar wasn't removed from his perch. He'll remain the team's TV color guy for the remainder of the preseason. But after that, Banner will have another decision to make: Defining Kosar's role with the team moving forward. And that's a prickly topic.

Kosar would likely jump at the chance for a role that allows him real authority within the Browns organization. Plenty of people around Northeast Ohio think it's a travesty that the Browns have never given him that chance. But football head knowledge is only part of the equation.

Kosar has always been an opinionated person. But there is a time to express an opinion, a time to soften the blow and time to keep your mouth shut. Navigating that hair-trigger minefield can mean the difference between focusing your attention on your job, and lost man-hours cleaning up public relations blunders and attempting to repair your organization's reputation.

It's not outside the realm of possibility to question whether Kosar's personal and professional history, which have not been kind to his brain, have clouded his judgment to the point where you can't trust him to make the right call with regard to decorum.

Heck, it's hard enough for some people to hold their tongue when they haven't been subjected to repeated brain trauma. Remember the email that ultimately cost Phil Savage his job?

Banner has to decide whether he wants Kosar representing the Browns in any official capacity after the preseason ends. Knowing that Banner is generally unsentimental and extremely bottom-line driven,  Browns fans and Kosar loyalists might not like what they're going to hear.

But perhaps it's for the best. Kosar will still be free to appear on local TV and radio, talking football while speaking on behalf of himself, and only himself. The Browns will be able to protect an image that has already been dragged through the mud way more than necessary over the past decade-plus, and still isn't out of the woods, as Jimmy Haslam continues to deal with a large number of justifiably-angry trucking companies down in Tennessee.

If you can't say anything nice  … save it for afternoon drive time. 

Friday, August 09, 2013

The comfort zone

Brandon Weeden left a five-year baseball career behind and returned to football, ostensibly because football is his comfort zone.

Though Weeden was a second-round pick of the Yankees in the 2002 MLB Draft, his baseball career never took off. In a second round that included Joey Votto, Jon Lester and Brian McCann, Weeden was one of the comparative duds, never rising above Class A.

He bounced around several different baseball organizations, struggling to climb the minor-league ladder, attempting to master pitches other than a fastball – only to end up as a farmhand in his mid-20s, riding the bus for the A-ball High Desert Mavericks, then an affiliate of the Royals.

The High Desert Mavericks play their home games in Adelanto, Calif., located in San Bernardino County, on the edge of the Mojave Desert. It’s a place where ERAs go to die in the heat and thin air.

Weeden racked up more than 2,800 passing yards in a season – second in the state of Oklahoma – while in high school, so a college football career was always a reliable second option as he toiled away in the minors. By the time he quit baseball after the 2006 season, returning to the place where he had last achieved any real athletic success had to have sounded pretty appealing.

Dodging pass rushers and hitting receivers in stride 30 yards downfield? Piece of cake compared to keeping the ball in the yard at a place that has only slightly more atmospheric pressure than the Moon.

So Weeden enrolled at Oklahoma State in 2007 and made the football team as a walk-on. The adjustment wasn’t easy, but he progressed from redshirt to backup to starter to record-breaking NFL prospect.

He re-wrote the school’s record books as a senior in 2011, setting single-season records in total passing yards, completed passes and completion percentage. In the process, he was named a finalist for the Manning Award – the top quarterback-specific award in college football – and won the Fiesta Bowl in January 2012.

Weeden was most definitely back in his comfort zone. There were probably more than a few moments when he wondered to himself why he wasted half a decade playing minor-league baseball.

Then the Browns made him the 22nd overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. And Weeden, who had gone from no-name baseball farmhand to the golden-armed big man on Oklahoma State’s campus, was about to get another serving of humble pie.

Maybe in a parallel universe, Weeden ends up in a more fortunate situation, like Ryan Mallett, another big-armed quarterback who was drafted by the Patriots, and is now being groomed as a possible successor to Tom Brady on one of the league’s most successful teams.

But Weeden ended up in Cleveland, with an organization that has turned losing, instability, turnover, and ruining careers into a way of life over the past 14 years. An organization constantly and desperately searching for saviors upon which to place the crushing burden of eradicating a losing culture, restoring the team to prominence, and ultimately winning the city’s first major pro sports championship in half a century.

Brian Sipe couldn’t do it. Bernie Kosar couldn’t do it. Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez couldn’t do it. LeBron James didn’t want to do it. And here was Weeden, in the next wave of Marines to storm the beach.

He wasn’t in Oklahoma anymore.

As a 28-going-on-29 rookie, Weeden quickly discovered that football wasn’t his comfort zone. Winning football was his comfort zone. What Weeden had here was a mutant product comprised of the remnants of several failed roster reboots, led by Pat Shurmur, who coached more like a programmed computer, as opposed to a carbon-based life form who could think, feel, react and adjust.

Weeden rebounded from an abysmal debut against the Eagles to have a halfway-decent rookie season. He threw for almost 3,400 yards while completing 57 percent of his passes. He threw 14 touchdowns, but they were outpaced by his interceptions (17). His QB rating was a modest-but-not-humiliating 72.6.

And he did it all while playing in an ultra-conservative offense ultimately aimed at shoehorning him into a Colt McCoy mold. In a setup designed to benefit undersized, scamper-happy QBs who can dodge, dink and dunk, Weeden was a bullwhip-armed, stone-footed, ship’s mast of a QB. He was coached to look underneath first, play the percentages, and take very few risks downfield.

You might as well try to teach a dog to meow. It went against everything in his DNA, both in a metaphorical football sense, and in a very real genetic sense. Big guy, big arm, tiny offense. The fact that Weeden even put up the numbers he did is a minor miracle.

We know what happened from that point. The Browns limped to their fifth straight season of five wins or fewer. New owner Jimmy Haslam bulldozed the front office and coaching staff. Out went Mike Holmgren, Tom Heckert and Shurmur, in came Joe Banner, Mike Lombardi and Rob Chudzinski.

Chudzinski and new offensive coordinator Norv Turner pledged to install an offense that will play more to Weeden’s strengths – a vertical passing attack that embraces the idea of home-run throw and treats the 20-yard out pattern as a staple instead of a seldom-seen change of pace.

But the playbook only matters if Weeden can make it happen on the gridiron. In the NFL, the quarterback is the player who most influences his team’s level of success. A great QB, or QB who gets hot at the right time, can lead his team to great things. Joe Flacco proved it this past winter, as the Ravens won the Super Bowl. An underperforming QB can short-circuit the best-laid plans of coaches, and undermine rock-solid performances by the line, backs and receivers.

Teams with good QBs put the ball in the end zone. Teams with bad QBs don’t. It’s really that simple.

That’s where Weeden is now, as he enters his second year. He appears to have better tools at his disposal, with a pass-friendly offensive scheme, an offensive line anchored by Pro Bowlers and better talent at the receiver position than perhaps at any time since the Browns rebirth.

But the pressure is still there. Weeden still has the expectations of a battered franchise and hopes of a desperate city on his shoulders. And now, he’s no longer a rookie. The kid gloves are off. It’s time for Weeden to render a verdict on himself.

Weeden came back to football because it was always his first love. It was always the place where he felt most capable of success. Or that’s the story. Now we get to really see how comfortable Weeden can be manning football’s most demanding position while attempting one of the most challenging tasks the NFL can offer to a player, coach or executive – turning the Cleveland Browns into a contender.

Hopefully he’s not wishing, at some point, that he was back in Adelanto, watching home runs sail over the fence.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The big letdown

Monday night’s Indians-Tigers game was one of those moments that often lead to other moments. One of those moments that you -- down the road however far – realize was the finger that flicked the first domino.

It’s only the first week of August. There is still a lot of baseball left to be played. The Indians were still only four games out as of Tuesday morning. They’re in the thick of the wild card chase. They still have another series left against the Tigers, at the end of the month in Detroit.

And yet….in those moments of postmortem lucidity, when you look back at what this season ultimately became, you can’t help but think you might finger Monday’s game as the point when the division slipped away. The point when the Indians went from a fight for homefield advantage in the division series to, at best, the wild card and a first-round date with the Red Sox, who won six of seven against the Indians this year.

The Indians came into this week absolutely needing no worse than a split with Detroit. Maintain your three-game deficit, and the division is still quite winnable. Let Detroit take three of four, and their lead swells to five games. Let them come into your house and sweep four games from you, and their seven-game cushion all but signals the end of the division race.

Jhonny Peralta’s 50-game doping suspension, Miguel Cabrera’s bum hip and the good fortune of sidestepping Max Scherzer, Detroit’s ace-du-jour, in the rotation would seem to work in favor of the Tribe chances of at least clawing out a split. But the concrete evidence of the season series to date (a 9-3 Tigers advantage), and the Tribe’s often-combustible bullpen, can rot wood faster than you can build a raft out of it.

Monday’s game was a winnable game. More than that, it was a game they should have won. It was a game they needed to win. It was an important confidence-boosting toehold to carve in the midst of the torrential, scalding lahar the Tigers had poured out upon the Tribe thus far this year.

When the Tigers took three of four from the Tribe in early July, you could make the case that Detroit had successfully gotten in Cleveland’s head. The Tigers’ beefy offense is enough to send shivers down the spine of just about any opponent. But the way the Indians melted like Velveeta in the microwave in losing eight of their last nine to Detroit would seem to indicate another level of intimidation.

But that was a month ago. Plenty of time for the Indians to clear their heads and reset themselves for a final push in the last two series against Detroit.  And through eight innings, it looks like the Indians had smacked the cobwebs out of their skulls. Corey Kluber looked masterful in holding the Tigers off the scoreboard through seven-plus. Joe Smith finished off the eighth, and the Indians entered the ninth inning with a 2-0 lead.

On came Chris Perez, the Tribe’s always-volatile, often-polarizing, never-a-dull-moment closer. Somehow, since returning from a DL stint in late June, he had managed to convert 11 straight save chances, all the while dealing with the fallout from drug charges, stemming from the reported undercover delivery of marijuana to his house in early June.

But toking up was among the least of Perez’s problems Monday night. The sporadic nature of save chances, combined with a thin setup corps, had forced Terry Francona to go to Perez perhaps a bit more than he would have liked.

Monday was Perez’s eighth appearance in 11 days. That included two sets of back-to-back-to-back games. He was credited with either the save or win in every game he had appeared in since July 27 against Texas.

Perez’s command tends to fade in and out from pitch to pitch, batter to batter. You could call him “effectively wild.” But as soon as he threw a few pitches to Prince Fielder, Detroit’s leadoff hitter in the ninth, you could tell that the recent workload had taken a toll.

Perez did manage to snap off a crisp slider to Fielder, but his fastball looked fat and flat, and prone to drifting. Fielder, with one of the best hitter’s eyes in the game, managed to stay with an outside fastball and deposited it just inside the foul line in deep left for a leadoff double.

Perez always makes your stomach dance to his beat, but there was something wrong beyond the protracted angst typically wrought by a Perez save.

One batter in, and you could easily see that didn’t have it tonight, and he wasn’t going to find it. Not with an exhausted arm, against this heavy Motown artillery.

Victor Martinez followed with a sharp single to left. Fielder looks and runs like an elephant, but he was able to rumble home with the run that broke the shutout.

Every brain wave you could possibly send in the direction of the third-base dugout at Progressive Field was imploring Francona:

“Get Perez out of there! Get him out NOW! You can’t squeeze this save out of him! Don’t try! This game is too important tonight – go against the book and take him out!”

But as the old saying goes, managers who listen to fans are doomed to sit in the stands with them, and Francona would have to be the one to look Perez in the face and tell him “I can’t trust you to finish this game off tonight.”

Perez has 124 career saves and an all-star appearance that say he can close the game out. What message does it send to the team if Francona pulls Perez with the save still intact? What message does it send if he inserts Cody Allen with the save still intact, and Allen blows it?

There are so many ways it could go wrong. But it was going wrong – horribly wrong – with Perez out there, flailing away at Detroit’s heavy lumber with his exhausted chicken wing.

Perez walked Andy Dirks. Still nobody out. Allen was warming up in the bullpen at a furious pace. But the save was still out if Perez could wriggle off the hook somehow.

But Perez didn’t have a deeper reservoir of energy or resolve to tap. Not on this night. When Alex Avila deposited a three-run homer in the stands to put the Tigers ahead by the final margin of 4-2, it was a realization of the inevitable.

If Monday’s game indeed flicks the domino line that ends the Tribe’s hopes of a division title, we might look back and realize it was Francona, in a rare instance of bad judgment, who cost the Indians their shot.

Francona likes to pride himself on managing with his head, not his heart. But perhaps Francona’s heart won out on Monday, and he couldn’t bring himself to quick-hook his all-star closer when the game was still in hand. Perhaps he was concerned about wearing the goat horns if he left the game in Allen’s hands, and Allen failed him.

There really was no sunshine-bathed route for Francona to take. Every path had thunderclouds. But the darkest path was to let an exhausted Perez continue to twist in the wind toward the inevitable outcome.

Francona tried to squeeze one inning too many out of Perez, and he got burned. Hopefully the scorch-marks aren’t still visible in late September, but as Yogi Berra was once purported to have said, “It gets late early around here.”