Sunday, December 30, 2007

End of the road

Jim Sorgi has been referred to as the Maytag Repairman of NFL quarterbacks. As the backup to Canton-bound Peyton Manning, his uniform almost never poses any stain-treatment challenges for the Colts' equipment managers.

Sunday night, one of the league least-used backup QBs looked the part.

Despite playing all but the first two series of the game, Sorgi still finished with just 68 yards passing, a distant second to Peyton Manning's 95 in a relative sliver of action.

Sorgi plus a heavy helping of other Indianapolis backups playing against a highly-motivated Titans squad equaled an ugly 16-10 Titans win and the start of the offseason for the Browns.

Could you really have expected anything more from the Colts, who have been locked into the AFC's second seed for weeks and still finished with a stellar 13-3 record?

Sorgi did his job, and his job wasn't to win the game, or even look good. It was to allow Manning to walk off the field at the end of the game with his arms, legs and head intact and ready to go for the divisional playoff round. That equaled a Colts win on this night.

The Titans, meanwhile, have the anti-Sorgi on their bench. Tennessee's fortunes actually received a boost when scatter-armed starting QB Vince Young left the game in the third quarter with a quadriceps injury, ushering in Kerry Collins, who has led a team to a Super Bowl in his career.

Collins, a superior passer to Young (which isn't saying much), was good enough to eke out a pair of field-goal drives that turned out to be the margin of victory.

For the Browns, the disappointment is bitter in the short term, but for a team that was picked as arguably the NFL's worst at the start of the season, to win 10 games and be in a position to clinch a playoff berth in the season's final weeks has to be viewed as a major step in the right direction, even if they couldn't seal the deal.

Unlike the 2002 team, the last Browns squad that was close to this good, there is little chance that management will give seven starters the axe this offseason. In other words, it appears this season can be a stepping stone to bigger and better things for a team that has a lot of youth at key positions on both sides of the ball.

There will be plenty of time to debate the future moves of the team, the fate of Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn and Jamal Lewis. For now, the sting of a near miss needs to subside, and we need to take in the whole of what has transpired over the past four months.

The Browns are a work in progress, like every other year. But at least this year, "progress" is the operative term.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Master List: January 2008

I figured I'd get a head start on the new year by updating a list I haven't updated in a while: The Master List of the 20 most valuable players in Cleveland sports.

To refresh, I rank each player based on three main areas:

What does the player mean to his organization?
Is this the type of player the team thinks they can build around? Does he help them win games? Does he increase the legitimacy of the organization? How much would losing this player hurt his team?

What does the player mean to the fans and city?
How much does having this player boost Cleveland's collective morale? Is he a fan favorite?

What is the player's marketability?
Does the player get the name of himself, his team and the city out in the regional or national spotlight? More importantly, does he do it in a positive way (call this the Albert Belle rule).

I last updated this list in August '06. Previous rankings are listed in parenthesis.

1. LeBron James (1)
Yankee hats aside, he's still the first true superstar to wear a Cleveland uniform since Jim Brown. Rooting for the Iranian national soccer team wouldn't change that.

2. Grady Sizemore (2)
His stats fell off in '07, but he still remains a huge fan favorite, and is an exciting defensive centerfielder who now has a Gold Glove to his credit.

3. C.C. Sabathia (12)
He's the first Tribe pitcher since Gaylord Perry to win the Cy Young Award, but in reality, he might be the best Tribe starting pitcher since the heyday of Bob Lemon and Early Wynn in the mid-'50s. Too bad it took until the eve of free agency for C.C. to finally realize that potential.

4. Derek Anderson (NR)
This is what I call an arrival. Four and a half months ago, Anderson was antimatter. Now, he is not-so-arguably the biggest reason for the Browns' turnaround and is lauded as one of the rising quarterback stars in the NFL. Unfortunately, if the Browns miss the playoffs, everyone will remember his four-pick performance against Cincinnati and not what he did in the Browns' nine wins to date.

5. Joe Thomas (NR)
It's been a while since a Browns rookie has made this kind of impact, let alone a rookie offensive lineman. In one season, Thomas has established himself as an elite left tackle, helped solidify a previously-terrible Browns offensive line, was named a Pro Bowl first alternate, and has even caused some cash registers to ring with sales of his No. 73 jersey.

6. Fausto Carmona (NR)
Like Anderson, Carmona stormed onto the scene following a colossal failure. Carmona rebounded from his 10-loss 2006 to post 19 wins in '07 and finish fourth in Cy Young balloting. The 1-2 ace punch he provides along with C.C. is what sets the Indians apart from every other American League team save for Boston.

7. Braylon Edwards (16)
He has largely eliminated the dropped passes that have plagued him since entering the NFL, and has become one of the NFL's most exciting playmakers. In earning his first Pro Bowl invite, Edwards has become the player GM Phil Savage envisioned when he selected him third overall in 2005.

8. Victor Martinez (6)
His drop has little to do with his own performance and more to do with what those above him have accomplished. Martinez is still one of the game's best offensive catchers and was the Indians' go-to guy in clutch situations for most of the '07 season. A highly-underrated aspect of Martinez's skill set is his ability to quarterback a pitching staff. Pitchers seem to quickly gain confidence in Martinez's ability to handle a game.

9. Travis Hafner (3)
After holding strong in the third spot for the first two sets of Master List rankings, Hafner takes a hard fall after a statistically-lackluster '07. But he's still the only true power hitter in the Indians' lineup and he is thoroughly marketable with a nickname like "Pronk," so he stays in the top 10.

10. Jamal Lewis (NR)
Even though the Ravens didn't want him back, having Lewis chewing up yards for the Browns late in games still feels like we're stealing a bit of Baltimore's thunder -- especially as current Ravens running back Willis McGahee continues to not impress. Lewis might not be a long-term solution as a feature back, but he might be more than a one-year reclamation project. He's easily the best power back we've seen around these parts since Kevin Mack.

11. Kellen Winslow (NR)
Since returning to health last year, Winslow has become a pass-catching machine and one of the league's elite tight ends. The motorcycle crash did permanent damage to his knee, so we'll likely never see a 100-percent healthy Winslow. But as he famously once said, "My 90 percent is still better than any other tight end out there." He's just about proving himself right. Only Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates are in Winslow's class. If Winslow can have Gonzalez's longevity, he'll follow Kellen Sr. to Canton.

12. Zydrunas Ilgauskas (8)
With as many bricks as the Cavs chuck at the hoop, how can a 7'-3" guy not be valuable? He cleans the offensive glass, flashes to the top of the key on defense despite his obvious speed disadvantage, and all he asks in return is to be fed the ball on a few pick-and-fades so he can get his 10-15 points per night. He's not a star player, but he'll always be a key ingredient on a winning Cavs team.

13. Eric Steinbach (NR)
Like Joe Thomas, his next-door neighbor in the Sunday trenches, Steinbach isn't an athletic specimen. He's kind of slow, and allegedly wears arm and leg braces to give opponents the illusion that he's more banged-up than he actually is. But when it comes to blocking technique, you won't find many better in the game than Steinbach. To know that he and Thomas might comprise the left side of the Browns line for the next seven-to-10 years is downright heartwarming.

14. Daniel Gibson (NR)
He's not really a starting point guard. He is a bit too small to adequately cover most starting guards in the NBA. But when LeBron feeds the man they call "Boobie" the ball, and he squares to shoot that hair-trigger three, you can feel pretty confident it's going in. More so than, say, Sasha Pavlovic.

15. Rafael Betancourt (NR)
Where, oh where, would the Indians bullpen have been without the services of Everyday Raffy? Joe Borowski ducked and dodged his way to 45 saves, but only because Betancourt and the set-up boys consistently got leads to the ninth inning.

16. Josh Cribbs (NR)
He's one of the best return men in football, which is extremely important when playing the field position game. He also tends to put himself right in the middle of the fray to make or assist tackles on kick coverages. But to move up this list, Cribbs is going to have to make the jump from special teams legend to difference-maker on offense.

17. Phil Dawson (11)
OK, gripe about his leg strength. But Dawson has two game-winning field goals to his credit this year, and would have had a third if not for a last-nanosecond timeout in Oakland. I might also add that he deserves a lobster dinner for the two field goals he kicked against Buffalo in a blizzard.

18. Asdrubal Cabrera (NR)
It remains to be seen whether he will become a longterm member of the Tribe infield, but during the '07 push to the playoffs, he combined pesky hitting with fantastic defense to become a player worth bookmarking.

19. Drew Gooden (13)
His jumper is money from the baseline, and he's a good enough rebounder and defender when he puts his mind to it. But that's the rub, as it always has been with Gooden. He's easily the Cavs' most athletic big man, but inconsistency seems to be part of his genetic makeup.

20. Jhonny Peralta (NR)
Amazing what a little corrective vision surgery can do. After a dismal '06 both in the field and at the plate, it was discovered that Peralta had stopped wearing his contact lenses because they were uncomfortable. After the surgery, Peralta regain his '05 form at the plate and once again became solid, if less-than-spectacular, playing shortstop, baseball's most demanding defensive position.

Off the list: Reuben Droughns, Ted Washington, Charlie Frye, LeCharles Bentley, Larry Hughes, Kamerion Wimbley, Leigh Bodden, Anderson Varejao, Willie McGinest, Shin-Soo Choo, Shannon Brown

Knocking on the door: Brady Quinn, Eric Wright, D'Qwell Jackson, Casey Blake, Ryan Garko

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Extreme Makeover: Holiday Edition

All I wanted for Christmas was a shakeup of the Cavaliers' roster. Danny Ferry, it's time to play Santa.

Stability is good, complacency is not good. Right now, the complacency has outweighed the stability factor, individual discontent has outweighed the greater good.

Changes need to be made, or the Cavs will be lucky to win 40 games.

If I were in Ferry's shoes, I'd be in a mood for "Extreme Makeover: Holiday Edition." The longer this malaise extends, the less driven LeBron James is going to be to compete. And we all know LeBron is not always the most motivated player in the NBA, especially when he thinks he's basically playing one-on-five.

So it's time to jolt this roster awake. Here are three trades that could make it happen. They're realistic from a money standpoint, and not totally outlandish from a player-exchange standpoint. All three trades worked in ESPN's NBA Trade Machine:

1. Larry Hughes and Shannon Brown to the Wizards for Antonio Daniels, Darius Songaila and Andray Blatche.

Daniels and Songaila are probably both on the downhill sides of their careers, and both have multiple years remaining on their contracts, but to rid the Cavs of Larry Hughes' cumbersome deal, you do what you have to do.

The Wizards are probably one of the few teams that would be attracted to Hughes. The former Wizard had his greatest success playing in Eddie Jordan's uptempo offense, and could add another scorer to compliment Washington's Big Three of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. Playing alongside outside shooters like Arenas and Butler would open up more lanes to the basket for Hughes, a factor missing in Cleveland which has contributed greatly to Hughes' failure as a Cav.

Blatche is a big man whom Ferry was interested in acquiring last summer as a restricted free agent. He has seen his role increase in Washington with the possible career-ending heart problems of Etan Thomas, so it's questionable whether the Wizards would want to give him up. But it's likely Ferry would want at least one player with upside in exchange for Hughes.

2. Drew Gooden, Daniel Gibson, Ira Newble and Cedric Simmons to the 76ers for Andre Miller, Kyle Korver and Herbert Hill.

A tough trade to justify. But with Miller and Korver, I envision an entirely new starting backcourt for the Cavs. We know Miller, while not an elite point guard, would still be far better than anyone currently on the Cavs roster. Any point guard who can enable LeBron to be something besides the primary ball-handler and offense-initiator is all right in my book.

Korver is a bit more of a stretch as a starting two-guard. He's lanky, slow afoot and the only real attribute he brings is a deadly outside shot. But isn't that what the Cavs truly need to keep defenses from collapsing on LeBron?

You can argue that Korver would be a sieve on defense. Probably true, but how exactly does that differ from the Cavs' current roster of shooting guards? If you're going to have a sieve, at least have a sieve who can consistently stretch defenses with his shooting.

On the flip side, losing Gooden would obviously hurt. But his contract is movable and Gooden is one of the few pieces the Cavs have that could potentially entice the Sixers to give up both Miller and Korver. You have to give up something to get something.

Update 12/29: So much for Kyle Korver.

3. Damon Jones to the Rockets for Kirk Snyder and Steve Francis.

Jones wants out of Cleveland, and has for a while. Apparently, he's even turned his trade quest into a musical. Sending Jones to his hometown Rockets might finally douse the fire of discontent that burns within the World's Greatest Shooter.

Essentially, this is a trade of spare parts. Francis has become utterly irrelevant as a NBA player over the past few years, he's averaging about 5.5 points this year for Houston. Snyder is a 24-year-old project player. Both Francis and Snyder have expiring contracts. Jones' deal will become an expiring contract next season.

Yes, Francis can be an even worse malcontent than Jones, and when it comes to selfish play, he's downright Marburian. But the Cavs would only have to deal with him for the balance of the season. it can't be any worse than enduring Jeff McInnis, can it?

The result:

Those three trades would leave the Cavs with a roster short on decent individual defenders but hopefully longer on scoring. If Mike Brown can't get his guys to play tough defense most nights, the team at least has to win somehow.

In the short term, maybe Brown has to bend his coaching toward what his team wants to do instead of constantly butting heads with his players over their lack of defensive intensity as the losses mount. If Brown can't bring himself to coach an offense-minded roster to play offense, maybe he's not the right man for the job.

In the long term, I'd rather see Brown try to teach a team of scorers how to play defense than take an endless stream of Ira Newbles and Larry Hugheses and try to turn them into good scorers. In basketball, defense is about footwork and energy; it can be taught. Offense is more about innate talent. Outside of improving on shooting form, a bad scorer really can't be taught to become a good scorer at the NBA level.

A score-first roster would better take advantage of LeBron's passing skills, which would hopefully make The King feel less like he's banging his head against a wall every time he pushes the ball up the court.

The bottom line: The Cavs need a makeover, and it appears that Ferry and Brown have been trying to pound square pegs into round holes for too long now. This team isn't the Spurs or the Pistons and probably never will be. Maybe it's time to stop fighting that fact and go with the flow.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Clinch time? Nope, choke time

The Browns had a chance Sunday. They had a chance, and they blew it. End of story.

The Browns choked the same way the Indians choked when they had a chance to close out the ALCS. They were in a position to advance, they came out tight, made panicky mistakes and lost. That's it. Thanks for playing, we have some lovely parting gifts for you.

I can't see the Browns going to the playoffs now. I know there's all that fine print about how the Browns can make it in with a Tennessee loss to the Colts next week. But when you shoot yourself in the foot as gruesomely as the Browns did Sunday, the fates always seem to align against you.

If the hand of fate lands where I think it's going to land, the Titans are beating the Colts next Sunday. The Colts, locked into the AFC's second seed, have no need to play their starters for more than a series or two. Whether they finish 14-2 or 13-3 is of little consequence to the defending Super Bowl champs. They sure as heck have no vested interest in helping the Browns.

It appears Cleveland will have to be satisfied with a 10-6 or 9-7 finish and a near miss of the playoffs. But, hey, it's a five- or six-game improvement over last year, right? Right?

Somehow, when you get this close and fail, the satisfaction of vastly exceeding everyone's wildest expectations doesn't wash the bitter taste out of your mouth.

Sunday's 19-14 loss to the undermanned and supposedly-outclassed Bengals is a loss with a lot of potential fallout and long-reaching ramifications.

The only winner on the Cleveland sideline was Brady Quinn. Over the span of three hours, he went from surefire benchwarmer to back in the starting quarterback fray for 2008. Derek Anderson gave Quinn the opening as he took a hatchet to the reputation he spent all season crafting as one of the league's rising QB stars.

Anderson was, quite simply, embarrassing. On the biggest stage of his career, his legs turned to Jell-O. And when Anderson goes weak in the knees, we all know what's going to happen next: he's going to cave to his QB hammerhead instincts and throw the ball as hard as he can, defensive coverage be damned.

Anderson was certainly helped by a couple of inexcusable drops off the normally-sure hands of Lawrence Vickers and Joe Jurevicius. But that was only a small fraction of Anderson's woes. Most of them were self-inflicted with disastrous results.

All four of his interceptions were of the "What in the H-E-double-hockey-sticks was he THINKING throwing that?" variety. Even the deflected interception that short-circuited the drive to start the third quarter was thrown too low to a screened-off Kellen Winslow, who was being swarmed by black jerseys.

All told, Anderson's wild arm led directly to 13 Bengal points at the end of the first half and killed two would-have-been scoring drives in the second half.

It's a long-way-around way of saying that Anderson lost the game. Singlehandedly. Yes, that's harsh. But it's also true. Take Anderson out of the equation, and the Browns played a solid game all around. The defense didn't allow the Bengals into the end zone on the occasions when an Anderson pick didn't pin them against their own goal line.

The offensive stat lines were peppered with nice individual performances in spite of Anderson's miscues: Braylon Edwards, eight receptions for 52 yards and two touchdowns to pass Gary Collins for a new Browns single-season record; Kellen Winslow, seven catches for 73 yards; Jamal Lewis, 21 rushes for 92 yards.

The turnover battle was even closer than you might have realized as the Bengals nudged the Browns 4-3. Bengals QB Carson Palmer was picked twice and running back Kenny Watson was stripped of the ball in a critical late-game turnover that gave the Browns a chance to win.

But when your starting quarterback sabotages you with four interceptions, all on terrible throws and all with dire consequences, it's just too much to overcome.

Perhaps not even Anderson yet realizes how much damage he did on Sunday. Not only did he deliver the Browns' playoff hopes a potentially-fatal blow, not only did he raise an enormous red flag concerning his ability to perform competently -- let alone win -- in a playoff environment, he might have just shrunk the market greatly for his services in 2008, should the Browns choose not to retain him.

Unless Anderson can rebound in a big way and the Browns can still find a way into the playoffs, Anderson will arrive in restricted free agency as a choker, the saboteur who ruined the Browns' 2007 playoff run. Atlanta, Miami and any other team in the market for an upgrade at quarterback is going to almost certainly think twice about making a play for Anderson.

If the Browns slap the franchise tag on Anderson, they would be doing it with an eye toward keeping him, because no team's GM in his right mind would sacrifice a first- and third-round draft pick to acquire a QB who makes the kinds of rookie mistakes a team would have to endure if they had just drafted a kid out of college and played him as an NFL frosh.

For Anderson and the Browns, the prevailing attitude is probably to suck it up and get ready for San Francisco next week. Even if they're no longer in the driver's seat, the Browns are still alive in the race for the final AFC wild card slot.

But this loss to Cincinnati might not go away as easily as that, and it goes beyond the haunting thoughts of what might have been, should the Browns find themselves cleaning out their lockers a week from Monday.
For a team that needed stability at the QB position, they now have a rapidly-brewing controversy. For a QB who needed to assert himself as a winner, he now faces a murky future as a franchise building block. For a fan base that has waited so long for playoff football, it might be time to start counting down the days until pitchers and catchers report.

Clinch time?

This is the game I circled when it became apparent that the Browns were going to make a serious playoff push.

Week 16, Bengals, at Cincinnati.

It turns out, this game goes even deeper than I imagined it would.

If the Browns win, they clinch their first playoff berth in five years, and keep alive their flickering hopes for their first division title in 18 years.

If they lose, they open a Pandora's box of nasty possibilities.

A Browns loss coupled with a Tennessee Titans win over the Jets would push the Titans back into the driver's seat for the final playoff spot. If the Titans beat the Colts the following week -- a distinct possibility since the second-seeded Colts would likely rest their starters for much of the game -- the Titans would win the final playoff spot regardless of the outcome of the Browns-49ers game.

In that scenario, the Browns and Titans would finish with identical conference records of 7-5, and the Browns would lose on the third tiebreak -- record versus common opponents. The Titans would hold a 4-1 record in games against the Texans, Raiders, Bengals and Jets. The Browns would hold a 3-2 record against the same teams.

The Browns can avoid it all by simply taking care of business against the Bengals this afternoon. But this is a dangerous game because it's a division game against a intrastate rival that is convinced that their Week 2 loss to the Browns propelled the teams in opposite directions.

The Bengals seem to have reverted back to the "Bungles" teams that soiled the NFL's good name for the all of the 1990s and the first half of this decade. But this is a team that is better than their 5-9 record would indicate.

Yes, this is a team that lost to the woeful 49ers eight days ago. But the Bengals also pounded the Titans 35-6 in late November. Their defense might be among the league's worst, but then again, so is the Browns'.

If anything, this game could be like shadow-fighting for the Browns. Two teams with questionable defenses relying on their high-powered offenses to score their way to a win.

Two things probably give the Browns the upper hand: They have superior special teams, particularly when it comes to punting and kick returning, so they can play the field position game better than that Bengals likely can. The Bengals will also be without the services of perennial Browns killer Rudi Johnson according to news reports, which will probably force the Bengals to the air more than they'd like.

Leigh Bodden, Eric Wright and the rest of the Browns' cornerbacks had better get ready. Cleveland's chances in this game might rest on their collective ability to contain high-octane receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Without the services of Rudi Johnson, QB Carson Palmer will probably go to the air early and often.

And Derek Anderson, if your team falls behind early, please resist the temptation to force passes into triple coverage 40 yards downfield. If you let this Cincinnati defense pick you off three or four times, it will be a repeat of the Cardinals game all over again.

Remember, with Kellen Winslow lurking close to the line of scrimmage, it's always the right time for dump-off time.

On paper, the playoff-contending Browns should have no problem polishing off a Bengals team that lacks Rudi Johnson. But this is the AFC North, where all four teams have a history of really not liking each other. The Bengals would relish the opportunity to play spoiler for the Browns' playoff hopes, as the Browns did to the Bengals on the last week of the 2003 season. They will be motivated, make no mistake about it.

If the Browns are as good as advertised, it shouldn't make a difference, and they should be able to head back to the other end of the state with a playoff berth in tow. But if they're not, the Titans will have the opening they've been looking for, and Week 17 could be a drag race to the finish line, with the Browns sitting in the passenger seat.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The King and his coach

Well into his third season with the Cavaliers, we figure we know a good amount about Mike Brown as a basketball coach.

He preaches defense above all else. He's a basketball bookworm well-versed in the X's and O's of the sport, a must for any successful coach. He realizes that the Cavs are a LeBrocracy and willingly takes a backset, adjusting his leadership style and temperament the best he can to suit his superstar.

Last year, Brown pushed enough right buttons to get a Cavs team with a less-than-elite roster to play elite defense for two months, enough to knock off the Pistons and reach the franchise's first-ever NBA Finals.

All in all, it would seem Mike Brown has most of the tools for success as an NBA coach. So as the 2007-08 Cavs season quickly devolves into a train wreck, we have to ask, "What gives?"

Everything Brown taught his players to believe in last year was lost over the summer. The Cavs departed Game 4 of the Finals as a scrappy bunch that played over their heads on defense. They arrived in training camp minus three major contributors -- two to contract holdouts and one to knee surgery -- but that doesn't offer much of an excuse for the remaining players who, outside of LeBron, showed that Brown's defensive principles of the previous spring had a retention rate of about two percent.

The Cavs are now one of the worst defensive teams in the league, serving up 105 points to the Nets and 108 to the Knicks, who are among the most stone-cold-awful offensive teams in the NBA.

it would be easy to chalk it all up to a terrible roster assembled by Danny Ferry. But it isn't quite that simple.

Yes, the Cavs have major flaws and an obvious talent deficiency compared to the NBA's true elite. That's an issue that goes back to the Jim Paxson regime and something I've addressed before. But the reason why this team plays with such mind-blowing inconsistency goes deeper than raw talent or lack thereof.

There is an apparent rift between Brown and his players, and it appears to be the sum of a coach with questionable teaching and motivational techniques pitted against a roster that follows the lead of their sometimes-moody, ego-driven superstar leader.

Brown is not a fool. Let's get that out of the way right now. He knows basketball, and he probably knows more about offense than anyone wants to credit him for. But there has been a long-standing question of if he can take his extensive basketball knowledge and make it palatable for his players.

Mike Brown is like Stephen Hawking lecturing you on the inner workings of quantum physics until your brain melts. That's not what a coach is supposed to do. A coach is supposed to take PhD-level basketball concepts and explain them in a short, sweet way that your garden-variety NBA jock can take and implement on the hardwood.

The best-laid plans do no good if all they do is bore the people who will carry out those plans to tears, or worse yet, fly straight over their heads in a flurry of five-dollar words and industry jargon.

The troubling this is, Brown has the right idea, but he might be presenting it in an unproductive way. Defense wins championships, and defense is the reason the Cavs made it to the championship round last spring. But Brown might have made a defense-first philosophy so unappealing to his players that they want to stick cotton in their ears to drown their coach out and run the floor.

Now, switch over to LeBron. He carries a lot of weight in the Cavs organization. I mean, a LOT. More weight than one player should probably carry in a healthy organization. But, by being leaps-and-bounds the best player in the until-recently-forgettable history of the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron is the strongest voice in the locker room, on the court and in the front office.

If he gets frustrated with his coach, the whole roster gets frustrated with their coach. If he doesn't see eye-to-eye with Brown, nobody in uniform sees eye-to-eye with Brown.

LeBron is quite possibly the most talented offensive player in the game right now. Obviously, he wants a system that plays to his strengths: Passing, driving and court vision. Brown has implemented that kind of system ... sort of. He erected a basic template that calls for LeBron to get the ball up top, utilize screens, suck the defense in and have the option to either kick the ball out or power to the hoop for a layup, dunk or foul.

But it's all predicated on expending loads of energy getting defensive stops, something LeBron doesn't always deem necessary. LeBron doesn't think every uptempo opportunity should have to stem from the transition game. Obviously, a roster of offense-minded players like Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Daniel Gibson and Zydrunas Ilgauskas would be inclined to agree with their court leader.

LeBron wants a team that is as comfortable winning in the 110s as in the 80s, and might actually prefer to win on the plus side of the century mark. Brown wants no part of that; triple-digit scores make him cringe because they reflect a second-rate defensive effort. His ideal final score is something like 84-78, with the opposing team shooting 29 percent from the floor.

Almost two and a half years into Brown's tenure, and the rift never totally disappears. Temporary truces have been called, as one was last spring, but only to benefit the greater good of a playoff run.

The Cavs are now back to their default setting of offense-minded roster led by an offense-minded superstar butting heads with a defense-minded coach. The Cavs, under this current setup, will probably never truly embrace defense as their calling card, as so many great teams have in the past. And Brown will never accept a cold-weather version of the Phoenix Suns sprinting up and down the floor on his watch.

So the standoff continues. At some point, the Cavs might lose enough games that one side or the other will crack.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The end of an era

I'm not usually one to talk about my alma mater around here. When you're from a smaller school like Bowling Green, your feelings toward your alma mater's sports teams tend to become like your feelings toward your family: strong, and intensely private, lest you get ridiculed for it.

No one, outside of other BG alums, need know that I sometimes bleed brown and orange for a team other than the Cleveland Browns. But when I found out (courtesy of Joel Hammond) that big changes might be coming to BG, I couldn't keep my mouth shut anymore.

Anderson Arena, the home of BGSU basketball since 1960, is facing the beginning of its end. Construction will reportedly begin in 2010 on a new convocation center on the east side of campus, part of a $150 million campus improvement project mean to coincide with the university's centennial celebration.

Progress is progress, I guess, but as some who covered BG men's basketball for two years and women's basketball for one year, I'm finding it hard to accept the fact that the old steel-and-brick barn at the center of campus is approaching its last chapter.

Anderson Arena is what sets BG basketball apart from other Mid-American Conference programs. The Ohio University Bobcats play in an aging-but-spacious convocation center (called, quite creatively, the Convocation Center). Kent State and Toledo, BG's two most bitter rivals at the time I attended, play in bland bleacher-filled boxes that reek of ambiguity. Standing in the lobbies of Toledo's Savage Hall or Kent's MAC Center, I could clear the crowd noise out of my head and not really know if I was in a classroom building, a rec center, an administrative building or what.

The Bowling Green Falcons, they have a homecourt advantage all their own.

Anderson Arena has been Northwest Ohio's answer to Boston Garden, Chicago Stadium and any other old, dark house of the masses that has since been consigned to history in favor of the bigger and, supposedly, the better. It is small, cramped and musty in places. Layers of flaking paint have turned some of the handrails and bleachers into a mosaic of orange, black, and in places, green.

The upstairs concourses are dark linoleum and smell of pizza and popcorn during games. The press box is cramped and hidden way up top, almost in the rafters.

The doors to the coaches' offices are wooden, the restrooms are outfitted in pale gree tile and the postgame press conferences are held in a classroom with barely enough room to fit more than one camera crew looking for a soundbite from the coaches before they'd pack up and leave those of us in the print media to continue the interview.

So many games have been dissected and analyzed in that room. It's the place where always-opinionated former BG coach Dan Dakich got on his soapbox in his weekly media chats, where Akron coach Dan Hipsher lost his temper, probably on more than one occasion, where Miami Ohio coach Charlie Coles could always be counted on for a one-liner with enough zing to get everyone laughing.

If those were the only reasons to lament the end of Anderson Arena as a basketball house, that would be enough. But none of those reasons are the real reason I love Anderson Arena.

I love the place because 5,000 people can sound like 20,000 when the place is rocking and BG basketball is the talk of the campus. At Anderson Arena, the student section is right on top of the court, adding to the noise and intimidation factor for opposing teams. It's a feature no longer present in today's security-minded arenas.

In November 2001, BG upset Michigan at Anderson Arena, 65-59, in one of the biggest regular-season games in school history. As the final seconds ticked down, the noise in the old house grew to jet-engine levels. As the clock hit zero, the entire student section stormed the court. The highlights made it onto SportsCenter.

I have no doubt in my mind that the crowd helped lift BG to a win that night, and to another win several weeks later over UNC-Wilmington, 84-83 in overtime. The fans stormed the court after that one, too.

Those are the memories I took with me as I left BG. Walking out of a broiling-hot arena after a game, heading across campus to the journalism building on a bitter-cold night, my game notes in my bag, knowing that I was carrying the story that would be the talk of the campus the next day.

I'm sure the new convocation center will be quite a sight when it opens. I'm sure it will have all the latest amenities to aid student-athletes, enhance the game-day experience for fans, and with any luck, give recruiting a boost.

But with the move, the BG basketball program is going to lose a great piece of what makes it the BG basketball program. In a sanitized-for-your-protection convocation center, high on comfort and low on personality, like scores of other college convocation centers around America, 5,000 fans will sound like just that -- 5,000 fans.

There will be no place for the sound to go but up and away, dissipating echoes joining the noise from seasons past at Anderson Arena. At that point, those of us who follow BG basketball might realize just how much we've lost.

(Photo credit: Jordan Flower, BG News)

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Don't Kidd yourself just yet

A story appeared on Yahoo! sports Wednesday noting that Jason Kidd and LeBron James had reportedly sent text messages to each other about how great it would be to hook up together in Cleveland.

In Cleveland, where the Cavs have been mired in a colossal slump without the services of LeBron due to a finger sprain, that is a headline surpassed only by "PEARL HARBOR BOMBED."

In a matter of minutes, the rumor mill turned into a buzzing bees' nest and the mantra of Cavs fans everywhere became, "Danny Ferry, get it done NOW!"

Imagine the starting lineup the Cavs would be able to trot out each night:

PG: Jason Kidd
SG: Some Guy
SF: LeBron James
PF: Some Guy
C: Some Guy

Wouldn't that be fantastic?

You bet it would. Kidd is just what the doctor ordered for the Cavs at both ends of the floor. A pass-first point guard with the size to play physical and body up on bigger defenders. He's also an elite defender and rebounder -- maybe the best rebounding guard in the league.

Trades involving players like Jason Kidd just don't happen that often. They're too valuable to their teams, and those teams have to make sure they get richly-compensated if they trade the player.

Which is why, if I was a betting man, I'd say any Cavs fan who is pinning all hope for a championship on Ferry's ability to trade for Kidd is set up for more disappointment and bitterness than necessary. Already, Kidd is trying to stomp out the brush fires caused by media speculation.

It's probably not going to happen. Kidd's $19 million salary this year and $21 million salary next year are only part of the reason why. Here are a few other reasons:

1. Unless Kidd majorly forces his hand, there is no way Nets GM Rod Thorn will trade him.

Kidd, as with any elite point guard, is the engine who makes his team run. If the Nets deal him, they're basically telling their players, "we're heading into a rebuilding phase." Chances are, that wouldn't go over so well with the team's other two stars, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson. The last time Carter was faced with a rebuilding project in Toronto, he admittedly quit on his team, leading to his eventual trade to New Jersey.

In other words, any way you slice it, trading Kidd would be a public relations disaster for the Nets, both with their fans and their own players. They probably can't afford that several years before moving into a new arena.

2. The Cavs have few players that the Nets need.

Start by putting Drew Gooden on the table at about $6.4 million this year. Gooden would have to be included in any trade for Kidd because the Nets need size and skill in the frontcourt. A woeful rebounding deficiency led to their loss to the Cavs in last year's conference semifinals.

But Gooden would only be a starting point since the money in NBA trades have to match within 15 percent per the collective bargaining agreement. So the Cavs would have to dump several less-desirable bench players like currently-injured Donyell Marshall ($5.5 million), Damon Jones ($4.1 million) or Ira Newble ($3.4 million) on New Jersey, or try to round out the deal with the brittle and also currently-injured Larry Hughes ($12 million).

Chances are, with Carter and Jefferson already in the fold and providing more-than-adequate wing scoring, the Nets wouldn't have much of a need for Hughes. That means in order to dump Hughes in a Kidd trade, a third team would probably have to get involved, opening up a whole new set of negotiations.

Did I mention that if you trade Gooden, you need to find another starting power forward? It's not going to be Anderson Varejao, who is an unknown quantity after a six-month hiatus from NBA basketball.

3. We're worked up into a frenzy over text messages?

Maybe, just maybe, LeBron and Kidd were having some fun with each other. Sure, they'd love to play together, and maybe even with the Cavs, but let's not read into this more than it's worth.

A message like "r u cmg 2 clevld jason" is not a blockbuster deal in the works. It's the grammatically-incorrect bantering of two guys who became friends over the summer. Maybe at some point Kidd and LeBron end up together with the Cavs, but the guys pulling the strings are Thorn and Ferry, not Kidd and LeBron. To believe anything else is to believe unfounded gossip, no matter how much you'd like to believe that star players are really the ones pulling the strings behind the scenes.

It makes for fun conversation around the water cooler. But the percentage of it that's rooted in reality is probably far less than Cavs fans would like to admit.

Monday, December 03, 2007

A slice of humble pie

Maybe Derek Anderson was just off his game in the first quarter of Sunday's 27-21 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Maybe he was playing within himself and just made some bad throws.

I saw something different.

I saw a quarterback who might have started to believe his own hype, a QB who was starting to realize that he is the out-of-nowhere feel-good story of the 2007 NFL season. Fans and media have been gushing over the rags-to-riches story of Derek Anderson, about his rocket arm and pocket poise, since late September, and maybe, just maybe, it was all starting to go to his head.

On the heels of a couple of nifty touchdown passes against Houston, including a missile to Kellen Winslow that managed to elude three Texan defenders, Anderson was becoming a prime candidate to start believing that he could pierce masonry with one of his passes.

You could liken it to a golfer who is so impressed with his ability to drive the ball 270 yards, he forgets that if the ball ends up on the next fairway over or in the cattails of a water hazard, it's still a horrible shot.

There is a fine line between good arrogance and bad arrogance in the spotlighted world of NFL quarterbacks. A quarterback has to believe he can make all his throws, even in the face of criticism. He has to believe in his ability to zip the ball into tight coverage when needed. He can't fear the possibility of an interception when he drops back in the pocket.

But he also has to know when such Herculean displays of strength are needed, and when to let off the gas pedal and play it a little more conservatively. He has to remember that the object of the game is to score touchdowns, not impress everyone with his arm strength.

Sunday, Anderson might have dabbled a little too much in arm vanity. And football, like any sport will do sooner or later, served up a slice of humility to the Browns' blossoming QB.

Tim Carter gets an assist on Anderson's first interception for failing to come back to the ball. But Anderson still carelessly winged the ball wide, to a place where it was easy pickings for Cardinal corner Roderick Hood, who snagged the errant pass and cruised 71 yards for the first score of the game. Even if Carter comes back to the ball, that still was probably an interception.

The second interception was more glaring. Anderson was hit as he threw a deep ball to Braylon Edwards, but the ball was thrown into double coverage with the Browns trailing 14-3 and in desperate need of a touchdown, and in even more desperate need of not falling farther behind.

With underneath throws working, as they have more times than not this year, Anderson opted for the jugular in a situation where a kill wasn't needed. The contact Anderson absorbed as he released the ball turned what would have been a dicey play into another brown leather blimp hanging in the sky for a Cardinal defender to snag. Hood again was the opportunist, returning the pick 26 yards.

After watching four years of ultra-conservative and unimaginative playcalling from the Browns, I'm not ever going to say they should abandon the big play, especially when the team finally possesses a quarterback and receivers capable of big hookups. But there is a time and a place for big gambles, and down 14-3, with a delicate momentum swing in your favor, isn't the time. Certainly not into double coverage.

Two picks, a botched snap that led to another turnover, and his failure to put the ball in the end zone in the fourth quarter all add up to Anderson's worst start-to-finish game since becoming the Browns' starting QB in Week 2.

The magic wand Anderson was able to wave in previous comeback situations wasn't there. Even so, the Browns were still one Winslow toe-plant away from winning the game as time expired, proving that these Anderson-led Browns are capable of absorbing a lot of adversity and still give themselves a shot to win many games.

But three turnovers at the hands of their quarterback was simply too much to overcome. And it should have been. Even if Winslow pulls off the miracle touchdown catch, the Browns had no business winning Sunday because they let mistakes ruin a game in which they otherwise battled the Cardinals to a draw.

For the first time since Oakland blocked a last-second field goal in Week 3, Anderson and his gifted arm weren't enough to rescue the Browns from losing to an inferior team. It's a tough lesson for a QB to learn, but one that is necessary.

You can have the kind of arm that would make Nolan Ryan look like Jamie Moyer, but even that isn't going to be enough to overcome the gray matter between your ears.

That is where Derek Anderson, and his teammates, lost Sunday's game.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Sean Taylor update

The cause of Sean Taylor's murder earlier this week now points to a burglary gone bad.

Four males were arrested Friday, two men and two juveniles, and according to the confessions Miami-Dade County police reportedly received from the quartet, they entered Taylor's house looking for items to steal. When they entered Taylor's bedroom during the early Monday morning incident, Taylor surprised them and one of the intruders shot him.

The Associated Press, via ESPN, reported that the four suspects did not expect Taylor to be at his Miami home during football season, but Taylor had been rehabbing from a knee injury primarily at home for several weeks, leading to the fatal confrontation.

The AP identified the four suspects as: Venjah K. Hunte, 20; Eric Rivera Jr., 17; Jason Scott Mitchell, 17; and Charles Kendrick Lee Wardlow, 18. Charges had not been filed as of Saturday morning, but are expected to be related to murder and burglary.

Mitchell and Wardlow had prior connections to Taylor, according to the Miami Herald via ESPN. Mitchell did chores around Taylor's house. Taylor's sister reportedly dated Wardlow's cousin.

Friday's news took the Taylor story in an entirely new direction. Prior to the arrests of the four suspects, widespread opinion was that someone from Taylor's sometimes-troubled past had targeted him. Arizona Cardinals cornerback Antrel Rolle, a childhood friend of Taylor's, told the AP that a number of acquaintances "had been targeting him for three years now," and that "he lived his life scared every day of his life down in Miami because those people were targeting him."

Taylor, 24, died early Tuesday morning due to massive blood loss when a bullet severed the femoral artery in his leg. His girlfriend and 18-month-old daughter, who were also in the bedroom at the time of the shooting, were not injured.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Cleveland Collection

Last week, Sports Illustrated released a commemorative issue chronicling the history of Cleveland sports and celebrating the loyalty of this nation's longest-suffering fans.

(Sorry, Philadelphia fans, Cubs fans, Celtics fans -- you might complain louder, but subject of which fans have suffered the longest is not up for debate.)

Anyway, if you should happen to obtain a copy of "The Cleveland Collection," do me a little favor and open up to the contents page. Look all the way down at the bottom in the magazine credits, over to the far right, next to Frank Deford.

Yep. That "Erik Cassano" is this Erik Cassano.

Rich Swerbinsky, editor-in-chief of, was tabbed by SI to work as a consultant through the issue. Through him, I had a chance to write some content for this special Cleveland issue. I didn't get a byline, but for a young writer such as myself to be listed in the credits of an issue of Sports-freaking-Illustrated -- particularly a Sports-freaking-Illustrated that fans around this area will keep in their collections for years -- is quite enough.

It's a line on the ol' resume if nothing else.

So, I fully encourage anyone and everyone to go to their local bookstore or go online and buy a copy. Even if you couldn't care less that my name is in the credits, it's still a fascinating look at Cleveland sports history.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

That's one valuable finger

The most important, most analyzed, most scrutinized and most worried-about left index finger in the world currently resides adjacent to the palm of LeBron James.

LeBron injured the finger during the second quarter of Wednesday night's blowout loss to the Pistons when Detroit center Nazr Mohammed went for the ball and got a fistful of LeBron's hand instead.

LeBron played the remainder of the quarter, but returned to the bench in the second half wearing street clothes, his index finger buddy-taped to his middle finger. X-rays were negative, but that didn't stop a tidal wave of consternation from washing over Cleveland.

The worrying started with the Cavs' postgame shows on radio and TV, and continued this morning with a rare overreaction by The Plain Dealer's usual voice of reason, Terry Pluto, who previewed the apocalypse of the Cavs without LeBron in a way that would have made Nostradamus proud.

Yes, the prospect of an extended period without LeBron is terrifying to any Cavs fan, and with good reason. LeBron is the only person standing between the Cavs and the draft lottery. More than that, LeBron is the difference between a Cavs team that is a serious conference championship threat and a Cavs team destined for ping-pong balls in May.

The big-market pimps in the national media can make their cases for Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett in the MVP race, but there isn't much of a debate about which superstar is the most integral to his team's success. LeBron legitimately represents a 25-game swing in record for the Cavs over the course of a season. With LeBron, the Cavs are a 50-win team. Without him, likely a 25-to-30 win team. No other star can make that claim.

But, having said that, can I please ask the good folks in Cavstown to come to their senses for a second?

LeBron sprained the index finger on his left hand. It's not an injury that affects his shooting hand. It's not an injury that involves a weight-bearing joint. The Cavs themselves listed the injury as day-to-day, according to the Akron Beacon Journal's Brian Windhorst.

This isn't fragile Larry Hughes we're talking about. LeBron has played through a broken nose, numerous ankle sprains and maybe even a concussion or two. And you think a sprained finger is going to vanquish him, taking the Cavs' season right along with him?

Even if subsequent tests had revealed a hairline fracture, there is no reason to believe the Cavs season was going to be flushed into the NBA sewer.

LeBron knows what he means to this team. He'll get out there and play if it's at all possible, even with two fingers taped. It might affect his ability to go to his left. It might even affect his rebounding. But I find it hard to believe that anything short of a clean bone break that requires surgery would sideline LeBron for more than a few games. Based on a report Thursday, it doesn't look like his injured finger comes anywhere close to that level of damage.

Hasn't watching LeBron for the last four years taught you anything about resiliency? This is a guy who takes shots to the face, chips teeth, and still gets back up to play some more.

I know, as Cleveland fans, we all have an image of LeBron crumpled on the floor, writhing in pain, holding his shredded knee to his chest, stored somewhere in the dark recesses of our minds. But this isn't one of those times.

LeBron will be fine, based on everything that has been written and said as of Thursday afternoon. Even if he has to miss a few games, it will be an opportunity for the rest of the Cavs roster to (once again) prove that they aren't a band of mannequins filling the open space around LeBron.

The Cavs are 9-3 over the past four years when LeBron has had to sit. It's not good to have to make a habit of playing without your superstar, but sometimes the atrophied limbs on a team need to learn to stand on their own. Hopefully, should LeBron have to miss time, when he returns, the team will be stronger for having endured some time without him.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Real life

Two stories broke Monday, one local, one national.

The local story was kind of troubling. Anderson Varejao doesn't want to play for the Cavs anymore. He thinks Danny Ferry hasn't acted in good faith during the way-too-long negotiating process that probably reached an impasse at about the time Ferry tried to perform an end-around and negotiate with Varejao directly during a trip to Brazil last month.

Worse yet, according to NBA writer and noted Cavs skeptic Chad Ford, LeBron James views this as a step backward. Consider the source -- Ford's was an unnamed person "close to LeBron," and it sometimes seems like the ESPN trio of Ford, Marc Stein and Ric Bucher go out of their way to paint the Cavs in a negative light -- but when the scuttlebutt is that your superstar is growing increasingly unhappy with the lack of improvement in the roster around him, it's something worth paying attention to.

Anyone who read that story before going to bed on Monday, as I did, could be excused for wondering if 2008 was going to be 12 months of payback for what has been a pretty darn good 2007 for Cleveland sports.

Then we got up, checked the e-mail, turned on the TV, whatever it is you do while the a.m. coffee is brewing, and the public pout-fest of Varejao, the breach of protocol by Ferry, even the gathering impatience of LeBron, all took a back seat. More than that -- anyone with a heart and soul should have felt like a first-rate dope for spending one second worrying about fallout from the Varejao contract saga.

Redskins safety Sean Taylor had died. At some point while you were snug in your bed overnight, resting up for just another routine weekday, a 24-year-old man with magnificent athletic talent, an 18-month-old daughter, a future wife and every reason in the world to live expired. He bled to death because a bullet from an intruder's gun hit him in the femoral artery.

Taylor hung on for a little more than 24 hours after the now-murderer entered his house and shot him in the leg. But the loss of blood was too much for even his well-conditioned body to overcome.

Taylor's death should shed light on an aspect of professional sports that has become almost an accepted fact of life. Young athletes too often can't or won't sever the ties to past lifestyles once they reach the money-laden pinnacle of their profession. Instead of fame and fortune creating distance between a professional athlete and trouble, in many ways it compounds problems.

Professional sports teams and leagues put their young players through the paces with rookie symposiums, classes and mentoring programs. They try to tell guys like Taylor that they will be targeted for their fame and wealth, that if they hang out at nightclubs festooned with gold and diamonds, beautiful girls hanging on their arms, driving an expensive SUV, trouble will find them. If they go around brandishing guns to settle disputes, as Taylor allegedly did two years ago, trouble will find them.

But once the classes end, it's up to the player to stay out of trouble. They're grown men, after all, and are responsible for their own welfare. Some apparently just don't fully realize what that means.

It means if you fancied yourself a gun-toting thug in college, you have to abandon that lifestyle because your employer has invested millions of dollars in your ability to keep yourself safe. If you fancy yourself a motorcycle daredevil, like Kellen Winslow and Ben Roethlisberger did, you have to give up a potentially-dangerous hobby because if you crash and kill yourself, you could set your team back years on the field.

By all accounts, Taylor had come to the realization that he needed to change his ways. Some attribute it to the birth of his daughter. Some attribute it to a reality check Taylor received during his 2006 armed assault trial, stemming from a 2005 incident in which Taylor allegedly brandished a firearm at a person over two reportedly-stolen all-terrain vehicles. Whatever the reason, interviews with Clinton Portis and other Redskin teammates since his death painted a picture of a new, less volatile Taylor with a newfound commitment to being a family man.

Unfortunately, even if you're ready to let go of a self-destructive lifestyle, sometimes the lifestyle isn't ready to let go of you.

About a week before Taylor was murdered, an intruder reportedly broke into his house, rifled through his belongings and left a strategically-placed kitchen knife on his bed pillow. Authorities haven't said as much yet, but one would have to strongly consider the possibility that the incident is tied to Taylor's death.

Taylor apparently knew he was in danger. News reports said that when he heard his soon-to-be murderer enter the house, he grabbed a machete that he kept near the bed for protection and closed the door to the room where he, girlfriend Jackie Garcia and their daughter were sleeping. After Garcia had taken the baby and hid herself under the covers of the bed, the intruder reportedly broke down the door to the room and shot Taylor.

In other words: This almost certainly wasn't a random burglary. If that story, as relayed to authorities by Garcia, is true, the person who broke into Taylor's house did what they came to do -- injure or kill him. Burglars interested in material loot generally try to stay away from people when committing a crime.

Taylor is now a statistic, a cautionary tale about the dangers of extreme wealth combined with a volatile lifestyle. It's a lesson too few professional athletes learn, and a lesson some learn too late.

In a world where money reigns supreme and contract squabbles burn bridges, everybody in professional sports can learn a lesson from Taylor, both in life and in death. It's not just about the money, it's about how you handle yourself once you have money. Once you get drawn in to a volatile, sometimes-violent lifestyle, stepping out of that lifestyle can be anywhere from excruciatingly difficult to nearly impossible.

As with any untimely death, the real tragedy here isn't necessarily the loss of Sean Taylor. His mortal suffering is over. It's the life he left behind, the daughter who will never know her father, the family that will never be.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Upon further review

The thought is probably still rattling around in your head somewhere.

"The refs could have gotten in wrong. They could have blown the call. The Browns could have lost Sunday's game, and all we would have been left with is a 10-second video clip showing undeniable evidence that the hand of fate smacked the Browns once again."

Why? That 10-second clip of Phil Dawson's game-tying, double-bounce field goal is irrelevant to the game's outcome in the NFL's eyes.

You probably know by now that the NFL places field goal attempts on a list of plays that can't be reviewed via replay. Their rationale appears to be that if they review one field goal attempt, they'll need to review them all. Coaches and players would come up with all sorts of cockamamie reasons to throw the red challenge flag, thereby disrupting the brisk pace of NFL game action (this brought to you by the league that also brought you the "commercial break-kickoff-commercial break" format.)

There are two basic flaws in the league's rationale, however. One, teams are penalized with spent timeouts for failed challenges in the first 28 minutes of halves, so there is a built-in incentive to not challenge everything under the Sun. Two, field goals are basically cut-and-dried 99.9 percent of the time. If the ball passes between the uprights and over the crossbar, it's good. If it fails to do either or both, it's no good. That's why they make goal posts tall and bright yellow, to contrast the brown football.

For all but a relative sliver of field goal attempts, the naked eye is enough to determine whether or not to stick the three points on the scoreboard.

But for that sliver, the ball that passes over the upright, the ball that knuckles just inside the upright, or the occasional 51-yarder that clangs off the left post, hits the curved extension behind the crossbar and caroms back onto the field of play, a game or a season could be on the line.

The way the NFL currently has it set up, that game or season is riding on the shoulders of two men in striped shirts stationed below the goal post. It's all about what they saw, nothing more. If they huddle up with their crewmates and still can't come to the correct conclusion, then the correct conclusion isn't reached.

Sunday, the two officials who had the closest view of Dawson's field goal couldn't agree on what had happened. When the ball hit the turf and 75,000 held their collective breath, the officials looked at each other. One nodded, the other slowly turned toward the field and made the horizontal "no good" wave.

An NFL executive told ESPN that the game, by all rights, should have ended there. Right or wrong, the call was made and, not being reviewable, should have stood.

It took lobbying from Browns players and the argument of the goal official who had nodded to convince head referee Peter Morelli that the ball did, in fact, pass over the crossbar and hit the extension before falling back onto the field.

The Baltimore faithful, led by Ravens coach Brian Billick, might argue that Morelli received advice from the replay official in the booth, amounting to an illegal review, but the fact remains that Morelli never stepped into the booth and saw the replay with his own eyes. No one on the field did.

Whether the playoff hopes of the Browns and Ravens were inflated or seriously damaged hinged on what amounted to an impromptu trial without evidence; a "he-said, he-said" in which the person who made the more convincing argument won -- not necessarily the person who was right.

In this case, the correct person made the more convincing argument and the Browns didn't get shortchanged out of the chance to win that they rightfully deserved. But it could have easily gone the other way.

Instant replay is geared toward helping to eliminate human error from the process of officiating games, particularly key plays. NFL officials should be able to differentiate between using it and abusing it and make judgments on reviewable plays accordingly. But the NFL is so hung up on making sure instant replay isn't abused by teams and officials, they've taken away a legitimate use -- perhaps its essential use: making sure games that are decided on last-second field goals are decided correctly.

What does it say about the league that a pass play that leads to a game-deciding field goal can be reviewed, but the field goal itself can't? When the league's big thinkers sit down together after the season, they might want to meditate on that a bit.

Luckily for those of us in Cleveland, replay wasn't necessary to come to the right conclusion. But at some point -- maybe in a playoff game -- it might.

A 51-yarder off the foot of Phil Dawson to decide a regular season game might not be so big in the grand scheme of things. But if that ball is coming off the foot of Adam Vinatieri to decide the AFC Championship, with camera angles galore, the officials might want to have the option of going to the replay. The league's front office should oblige, for everyone's sake.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Hot dog heaven

CLEVELAND -- In one of the more bizarre career twists in sports history, it has been reported that competitive eating superstar Takeru Kobayashi has decided to give up a life of fame and fortune downing water-soaked hot dogs to take up baseball.

The man with the iron stomach and surprisingly well-developed abdominal muscles has reportedly agreed to a two-year deal with the Cleveland Indians, where he is expected to be employed as a relief pitcher.

Kobayashi was not immediately available for comment, adding fuel to the firestorm of speculation as to what, exactly, possessed him to switch vocations so suddenly and drastically. The speed of Kobayashi's fastball has never been documented, and it's highly doubtful that he possesses adequate command of a curveball or another off-speed pitch, considered essential for success as a professional pitcher.

However, Indians GM Mark Shapiro apparently sees something in the former Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest champ that others in baseball haven't seen.

“The signing of Kobayashi marks the first contract ever signed by a Japanese professional baseball player into the Cleveland Indians franchise and, more importantly, accomplishes one of our primary off-season goals of adding depth to the back-end of our bullpen,” Shapiro said in a statement Tuesday.
Reaction was swift and varied around the world of competitive eating on Tuesday.

Reigning Nathan's contest champ Joey Chestnut lamented the loss of his rival to baseball.

"Bird and Magic. Connors and McEnroe. Ali and Frazier. Domino's and Pizza Hut. That could have been us. We would have ruled competitive eating for the next 15 years. It's sad to see him go."

"We're all mystified," said Tim Janus, known professionally as "Eater X." "When I heard he was leaving for baseball, my first thought was 'stomach ulcer.' It happens to the best of them. But then, I thought, man, he's like Tiger Woods. If Woods walked away from golf to, I don't know, open a hair salon or something, who could talk? What would he have left to prove? He could give the entire golf establishment the finger and just walk away tomorrow if he wanted. Maybe that's what just happened. Kobayashi gave us all the finger and just walked away."

"He's a legend, man," said Eric "Badlands" Booker, a hip-hop artist and competitive eater. "Legends do what legends want to do."

Baseball executives also chimed in on the move by the Indians, who were looking for bullpen help after failing to hold a 3-1 series lead against the Red Sox in last months American League Championship Series.

"The Indians actually back-doored us," said Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. "We were set to offer Kobayashi at least $50 million, but apparently, my GM was too busy mashing Dunkin Donuts into his pie hole in the break room to be bothered with making a simple phone call. Like hammering out a new contract with A-Rod is so damn time-consuming. What am I paying him for again? Oh well, we all know a trained chimp could get this team to the playoffs with a $225 million payroll. Kobayashi will turn 30 in March, so he would have been a perfect fit for our aging, decrepit pitching staff. It's a shame, really. I need to go fire someone. Maybe I'll start small, like an intern."

"Kobayashi's cool. Check it out, I learned a new guitar riff!" said Red Sox GM Theo Epstein.

It is unknown if Kobayashi will attempt to apply some of his much-celebrated eating techniques to his new career, including the famous "Kobayashi Shake," in which he uses his esophagus muscles to force food into his stomach at a faster rate than normal.

It is believed he might be able to use such a motion to generate more power in his pitching delivery, which will be extremely important, given that Kobayashi stands a mere 5'-8" and is barely 110 pounds, hardly an ideal size for a major-league right-handed pitcher.

Kobayashi has about three months to get into baseball shape. Pitchers and catchers report for spring training in mid-February.

Correction: Sources have informed us that the person signed by the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday is not, in fact, competitive eating champion Takeru Kobayashi, but veteran Japanese relief pitcher Masahide Kobayashi. We apologize for any inconvenience this might have caused, and hope you will not take the failure to verify this one, small fact as an overall reflection on the journalistic integrity/competence of this news gathering organization. But still, having a relief pitcher who could eat 63 hot dogs in 12 minutes would have been pretty cool.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Cy for C.C.

Today was another first in the lifetime of any Cleveland fan younger than 35.

For the first time since 1972, the American League Cy Young Award is coming to the shores of Lake Erie.

C.C. Sabathia, come on down. You've earned it. Just be glad that the voting ended before the playoffs began.

Unlike Cleveland's last Cy Young winner, Gaylord Perry, C.C. probably didn't dabble in the dark art of ball doctoring. When you have a 95-m.p.h. fastball and a mid-80s slider, you don't need to hide a dab of petroleum jelly under the sweat band of your cap, or whatever Perry allegedly applied to grease the ball.

C.C.'s 2007 season will unfortunately be remembered for his three unspectacular postseason starts, but from April through September, you would have been hard-pressed to find a better pitcher in the game.

C.C.'s 19 wins tied with John Lackey, Chien-Ming Wang and Fausto Carmona for second among AL pitchers, and he likely would have won 22 or more if not for the offense's six-week vacation in July and August. His ERA of 3.21 wasn't Pedro Martinez in his prime, but rock-solid nontheless, good enough for fifth place in the AL.

He finished the season ranked fifth in the AL in strikeouts (209), fifth in innings pitched (241) and tops in strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.65).

Second-place finisher Josh Beckett had more wins, third-place finisher Lackey had a lower ERA, but neither of them had better across-the-board stats than C.C., who landed on top despite having his two main challengers play for the much higher-profile Red Sox and Angels, and the threat of teammate Carmona taking votes away.

For the record, Carmona received seven Cy Young votes, placing fourth. It was the first time since the award's inception in 1956 that two Cleveland pitchers finished in the top four.

Already, some fans are wondering aloud if this will affect the forthcoming contract negotiations between C.C. and the Indians. The answer is probably "no."

C.C. is almost certainly going to make $20 million per year or more starting in 2009. Cy Young Awards and postseason struggles aren't going to affect his earning potential all that much, certainly not enough to mean the difference between a near-record payout and chump change. No matter what hardware he does or does not win, he's still a left-handed ace who hasn't yet hit the age of 30, and someone is going to pay him as such.

Mark Shapiro will pull out all the stops he can to ink C.C. to an extension. But something tells me that if the Indians are going to get something done, it will happen between now and the start of next season. By the time April rolls around, offseason matters will be placed on the back burner, and by the all-star break -- during which the Indians have had some recent success in getting extensions finalized -- C.C. will almost certainly be looking ahead to testing the market during the following winter.

Unfortunately, this is the ticking clock that haunts every midmarket and small market team. The Indians have one more guaranteed season with two of the top five starters in the American League under contract. Shapiro has to win now, but he can't sacrifice the future to do so.

C.C.'s newly-minted Cy Young Award doesn't guarantee much for the future, except that the Indians will receive no hometown discount when they sit down at the bargaining table.