Monday, April 30, 2007

Something beyond hope

No one needs to tell fans of the Cleveland Browns how to hope.

Hope is that eternally-springing thing that appears every April when the team makes their draft picks and slowly builds throughout the summer. Hope is that feeling you get, no matter the team's recent track record, no matter the wannabe-cynical defense mechanisms you've erected to save yourself from further disappointment, that this year will be different, that this draft and free-agent class will be the desperately-needed cavalry that is going to turn the tide.

Hope caused Browns fans to believe in Kelly Holcomb as a starting quarterback. In brittle Lee Suggs as a feature running back. In Gerard Warren as the next Warren Sapp.

From the high-profile (Tim Couch, Courtney Brown, William Green) to the sleepers (Charlie Frye, Luke McCown) to the where-on-Earth-did-they-find-this-guy (Ben Gay), numerous players have been the the subject of hope these past eight years. None of them rewarded the hope, at least long-term.

Yet every April it starts again. Kellen Winslow. Braylon Edwards. The drafts are widely-accepted, never harshly-criticized by the fans because we want to believe our team is doing the right thing, finally. But the losing seasons just keep on coming.

You'd be excused if you wanted to buck the hope trend, cross your arms and go into full "Prove it" mode the past couple of years. With their track record, the Browns deserve nothing more.

That's what makes the events that affected the Browns on Saturday so difficult from an emotional-investment standpoint. As a fan of a team that has so consistently failed you since 1995, you'd have every right in the world to assume that Browns blew their third overall pick on an overrated offensive tackle in Joe Thomas, then gave up way too much to Dallas to move back into the first round and select an overrated quarterback in Brady Quinn.

You'd have every right to have a several-second flashback to the 1989 Herschel Walker trade, in which the Vikings essentially started the Cowboys' 1990s dynasty by trading a boatload of draft picks to Dallas for Walker.

You'd have every right to believe the Dolphins made the correct choice when they passed over Quinn in favor of Ted Ginn Jr. at pick No. 9.

You'd have every right to believe this is all going to end badly for the Browns, as things always seem to do. No one could fault you. History is on your side.

So why does this draft feel different? It goes beyond the cautious optimism that surrounds every draft to a feeling of real change. It's undeniable, no matter how hard you try to chalk it up to hype.

The Earth moved under Cleveland Saturday afternoon, and it had nothing to do with fault lines. It really wasn't even about Thomas or Quinn. They were the end products.

Saturday was the day that Phil Savage stopped behaving like Dwight Clark and Butch Davis before him. Saturday was the day that a long line of Browns GMs-as-self-proclaimed-master-craftsmen stopped. Saturday, Savage tossed aside the step-by-step master plan and started trying to win out of necessity.

Every GM attempting to rebuild a team seems to have a plan. A three-year plan, a five-year plan. It helps him look organized. It helps draw confidence from team ownership. But rarely does the plan follow the script start to finish. In the Browns' case, it rarely gets past "start" before there are problems.

Maybe it was the LeCharles Bentley injury a year ago. Maybe it was the rash of staph infections in Berea. Maybe it was watching Gary Baxter's career likely end before his very eyes. But somewhere along the line, Savage realized that time is an NFL GM's greatest opponent.

ESPN analyst Mark May chided the high price the Browns paid to acquire Dallas' 22nd overall pick and draft Quinn. He said the Browns were gambling with their future in trading away their first-round pick next year.

True. But the Browns have had nothing but "future" since re-entering the league. Sooner or later, that future has to become the present, or the guys who decide the team's future won't be making the decisions anymore.

Saturday, Savage made two bold moves in acquiring Thomas and trading for the right to draft Quinn. Not because he wants to be known as a GM who makes bold moves, but because bold moves are the only way he is going to ensure he and head coach Romeo Crennel keep their jobs.

The Browns have to show rapid, significant improvement starting with the outset of training camp in late July. Tough schedule be damned, injuries be damned, staphylococcus aureus be damned. There are no excuses that can cascade from the GM's chair that will take root with a fan base -- and more importantly, an owner -- desperate for wins.

Savage, smart cookie that he is, quickly realized that. Instead of trying to egotistically re-invent a bigger, better wheel, he's trying to find the best talent he can at key positions and get a winning team on the field as soon as possible. Which is a GM's job in the end.

That, by itself, is the reason why there is something beyond hope in Cleveland today.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Under pressure

The NFL Draft is like buying a car, except it's worse.

You waffle and pace, hem and haw, make your decision, retract your decision, lose some sleep and ultimately, on the day you absolutely, positively have to make up your mind, you close your eyes, put your finger down on a premade Russian Roulette list of payment death, and purchase the car on which your digit lands.

Sure, alpha draftnik Mel Kiper Jr. makes the draft seem a lot more complicated than that, but it really isn't. The members of a team's think tank identifies their needs, finds players that match those needs, then spends four months sweating under their collars, weighing pros and cons, college resumes, combine reports, signability and a host of other factors. So many variables are tossed around in NFL war rooms that if the common layperson were to pore over them, their brain would immediately be reduced to the size and color of a raisin, and they would cease to watch football for the rest of their life.

But in the end, it comes down to a decision. And the higher a team picks, the more weight is on that decision.

Right now, as a Browns fan, you have something in common with GM Phil Savage. Football isn't fun for either of you. For Savage, it's because he is the one who has to phone in the picks Saturday afternoon. For you, it's simply because you've been forced to watch the product his front office has put on the field the past two years.

Savage wasn't planning on this, hopping from the third pick to the 11th pick and back to the third pick in two years' time. By the 2007 draft, Savage was probably hoping to have the Browns good enough to at least draft in the middle of the pack, where he excelled at ferreting out diamonds in the rough in Baltimore.

Instead, Savage is once again tied to a top pick, charged with finding a franchise-caliber player, treading the same territory where Dwight Clark and Butch Davis picked Tim Couch, Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren, none of whom blossomed into a franchise cornerstone. Treading the same territory he himself walked two years ago, where he picked Braylon Edwards, a spectacular athlete who is becoming known more for flapping his gums than catching passes.

If you believe in the saying attributed to Albert Einstein about the definition of insanity, there is no reason to believe this year's draft is going to be any better to the Browns.

Of course, there is no reason to believe it won't be better, but when is the last time the fortunes of a Cleveland sports franchise turned on a dime with one draft pick? The last time that didn't involve ping-pong balls, I mean.

You, me, Savage, we're all setting ourselves up for disappointment if we are eyeing one guy with that third pick who is going to make the clouds suddenly part.

JaMarcus Russell has all the tools for stardom, but he is still raw. Raw is not what we want in Cleveland, where we've been waiting far too long for a winner. Brady Quinn is more polished, but has a nasty habit of getting flustered under pressure. Try not to imagine him playing behind the Browns' offensive line as it currently stands.

Joe Thomas is the best offensive lineman in the draft, but this isn't the strongest class of linemen, and Savage is probably set on drafting a guard before he thinks about a tackle like Thomas.

Adrian Peterson: Fragile, fragile, fragile. He'll be a franchise-type runner ... for the four games he's on the field each year.

In many ways, Calvin Johnson might be Savage's best ticket. The Browns have no business drafting the Georgia Tech wideout, but his athleticism is making other teams drool, as athleticism often does. If Johnson is left to the Browns at three, they can start fielding offers to trade down, which would allow them to amass draft picks this year and next.

The trouble is, trading up is incredibly risky, which is why a lot of teams won't do it unless they get desperate.

So Savage is likely left to pick third for a team that needs a pair of mid-to-late first-rounders and an extra second-rounder more than it needs the inflated hope and hype that surrounds the top of the draft.

For the Browns, the Lions, the Cardinals, all the teams that annually fill the prime spots in the draft order, it is no consolation prize for last year's pathetic record. This is another opportunity to make the fans call for your head when this year's franchise savior turns out to be anything but messianic.

For the Lions' Matt Millen, who was recently awarded a contract extension despite six years of ineptitude, maybe it's not such a big deal. For Savage, an intensely competitive executive who worked almost exclusively for winning teams prior to his current job, it probably gets under his skin a bit more.

For the fans, having the third pick means a smorgasbord of the best college players laid out in front of your team. But for Savage, the goal is far more drab: Draft well enough so that a year from now, you aren't forced to make these kinds of decisions again.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Pronk Shift

What you are viewing is quite possibly the biggest strategic overreaction by a manager in recent baseball history.

In an effort to cool down the hot bat of Travis Hafner (incidentally, the only hot bat currently connected to a Cleveland Indian), Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon devised this gem of a defensive alignment during the Tribe's weekend series against the Devil Rays.

Apparently, it involves creating a four-man slow-pitch softball outfield by sacrificing an infield spot, then taking all four members of said slow-pitch outfield and sliding them back so far that their heels are practically on the warning track dirt.

The three remaining infielders are then shifted to the right side of the infield, leaving a vast, green void on the left side of the field. There are no fielders between the pitcher and the left fielder, almost 300 feet away.
As near as I can tell, the logic behind what has been informally dubbed the "Pronk Shift" is that Hafner is a left-handed pull hitter who sends the lion's share of his batted balls to the right side of the field. Makes sense. Left-handed hitters dating back to Ted Williams have been the subject of similar infield shifts.
The two left fielders nearly plastered against the outfield wall suggest that if Hafner hits one to the opposite field, it's going to be a deep fly ball. It sort of makes sense, but Maddon is reaching.

What doesn't make sense is that Maddon would be willing to hand Hafner a base hit on a grounder to the left side of the infield by leaving it undefended. That's where this shift stops as legitimate strategy and starts making a mockery of how the game is supposed to be played.

All Hafner would have to do is reach out and slap at an outside pitch a la Tony Gwynn and he could jog to first before a Tampa Bay fielder could get to the ball.

Given pitchers and their desire to stay out of the power zones of hitters like Hafner, it's a likely scenario.

But maybe I'm overanalyzing this whole thing a bit too much. No one was on base, so Maddon probably didn't care if Hafner slapped a groundball single to left that would have easily been a 6-3 putout if there was someone manning shortstop.

Maybe it wasn't an overreaction. More likely, it was a cheap publicity stunt by Maddon meant to draw some attention to his Nowheresville team, a photo-op so that pictures like the one above could appear in papers around the country.

These are the types of things that would draw bemused, "He's finally lost it" comments if pulled by the likes of Joe Torre. These are the types of things that would draw the fans' wrath if it were tried -- and backfired -- in another town.

Could you imagine the reaction of Tribe fans if Eric Wedge would have pulled a stunt like this against Jim Thome or Justin Morneau? Could you imagine the hellfire and brimstone brought forth on radio talk shows if Thome or Morneau would have gotten a bleeder single out of it? Fans would assemble behind the Indians dugout and chant "Wedge must go!" for nine innings every night.

But in St. Petersburg, Fla., a town that seems to have more Yankee fans than Devil Ray fans, it's something to chuckle about.

Ask to be treated like a bush league team, and ye shall receive. The Indians took two of three from the Devil Rays over the weekend, and the Rays are fast on their way to another pathetic season, 8-11 and in last place in the AL East entering play on Tuesday.

Treat baseball like a video game, and your manager might strategize his way out of a job before too long.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Steinbach recovering from surgery

You didn't see this one coming a mile away, like an Alex Rodriguez homer with the game on the line?

Browns prized offensive line pickup Eric Steinbach will be out of commission for six weeks after having an appendectomy at the Cleveland Clinic this week. For the second straight year, the Browns' top free agent signing sees a scalpel before he sees a game field.

It's not a sports-related setback, and it would appear that Steinbach should be totally recovered in time to shred his knee in training camp, but with the Browns, never say never.

String enough staph infections together, and this might end up being the first career-threatening appendectomy in NFL history.

Do I sound pessimistic? Nah.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Hello, 2-seed

Some non-linear observations from the final night of the NBA regular season:

1. The Cavaliers had better realize that my defense/coping mechanisms have come down now that they have zipped past the Bulls and clinched the second seed. If the Cavs had drawn Miami as the fifth seed, my attitude about their playoff chances would have been fatalistic. If they would have clinched a first-round series with the Heat, it just wasn't meant to be this year, and my emotional investment in a Cavs-Heat series would have reflected that.

Now that they have the second seed and wouldn't face Chicago, Miami or Detroit until the East Finals, my hopes are officially up. I'm going to become emotionally attached to this team over the next month-plus, I'm going to hang on each game, anticipating a magic-carpet ride deep into May, or possibly into June.

2. With the second seed now comes the accompanying expectations. Anything short of a conference finals appearance is unacceptable. And, given the fact that the Cavs are in a pool with a declawed Wizards team, the Nets and the Raptors with the Pistons, Heat and Bulls beat on each other, the Cavs might not find a much better scenario for advancing to their first-ever NBA Finals.

As long as the Cavs don't follow their usual M.O. and fall asleep at the switch against lesser competition. As long as they don't let the Wizards or their would-be second round opponent hang around and push what should be a five or six-game series to seven emotionally-draining games.

Take care of business, quickly and efficiently. The Wizards are reeling without Gilbert Arenas or Caron Butler. The Cavs had better be headed to Washington for Game 3 up 2-0 and close this series out in no more than five games. This year's Cavs-Wizards rematch needs to have decidedly less drama than last year's series.

3. Bostjan Nachbar is my favorite Eastern European basketball player of the moment. (Sorry, Z. And send my apologies to Sasha.) The Nets swingman was largely responsible for me being in a good mood at the moment, hitting several clutch three-balls down the stretch of Wednesday night's Nets-Bulls game. Whenever the Bulls made a run in the second half, Nachbar or Vince Carter always seemed to come up with a huge bucket.

4. The Bulls' impotent offensive performance in the second half makes me still question how for-real this team can be, even though they've been on fire since the start of April. Sure, you might say the same thing about the Cavs, but when the Cavs' offense sputters, it's usually because they're not trying hard enough to make it work. The Bulls were trying to make their offense work, and they still looked bad.

5. Chicago's consolation for watching their basketball team lose out on the second seed? They got to watch Mark Buehrle throw a no-hitter for the White Sox. Seems like a good deal to me. Unless you're a Cubs fan and can't stand the White Sox, in which case I don't know what to tell you.

6. Finally, a brief Western Conference note: For the first time since 1994, the Golden State Warriors are headed to the playoffs. Not only does it end the longest playoff drought in the NBA, they will face the Dallas Mavericks in the first round.

Yes, that is worth mentioning. It might be a one-versus-eight matchup and the Mavs might be a juggernaut, but the Warriors beat them three times this year. They went 3-0 against the Mavs.

I'll repeat that: The Warriors went 3-0 against the Mavs. Call it the Don Nelson effect.

Sure, the regular season means nothing once you get to the postseason, but a team as mediocre as the Warriors doesn't sweep the season series from a team as good as the Mavs without it getting into the Mavs' heads.

I fully expect Dallas to win that series, but Golden State might make them sweat a little bit beforehand.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Sympathy for Mike Brown

When the Cavaliers offense sputters, coach Mike Brown can shoulder more than his share of the blame.

He made his name as a defensive assistant coach, a reputation that allowed him to get the first head coaching job of his career at the NBA level despite no prior experience as a bench boss. Offense never really factored in to the equation that rocketed Mike Brown from Denver Nuggets intern to head coach of the Cavs in a decade and a half.

In his two seasons as Cavs coach, it has been a struggle for the team to piece together any extended stretch of competent basketball at the offensive end. Even when they win, the offense is still subject to long dead spots, lazy jump-shooting and way too many turnovers.

Even at their best, the Cavs' offensive execution never seems to rise above a B-minus grade for an entire game.

When asked for the cause, thousands of index fingers reflexively arrow toward Brown, the man who could write a doctoral thesis on defensive schemes, but apparently stares at his offensive playbook like it's a collection of ancient Hebrew manuscripts. Or the stick-figure doodlings of a two-year-old.

One of the easiest things to do as a sports fan is finger the head coach as an idiot if your team is going through a rough stretch. Obviously, one might think, if the team is executing poorly and coming out of timeouts flat, it has to be that the coach is ineffectual. Right?

It's why Brown, Romeo Crennel and Eric Wedge are the understudies of Larry, Curly and Moe in the eyes of many Clevelanders. But for their shortcomings, Crennel at least has the excuse of little talent and Wedge could lean on what his boss, Mark Shapiro, called a "historically bad" bullpen a year ago.

What's Brown's excuse? As we know, every season with LeBron James under contract is precious time. If there is no progress, if the Cavs backslide and lose in the first round of the playoffs this year, it's a wasted season in the eyes of many fans, a wasted season that falls directly into the lap of Brown, who can't seem to put a halfway-decent offense on the floor despite having one of the game's best all-around offensive players, and a supporting cast that, at least on paper, should provide some degree of firepower.

But it's not all on Brown, nor should it be.

It doesn't get a lot of press because this isn't New York or Los Angeles, but Brown has one of the toughest head coaching gigs in the NBA.

The second-youngest coach in the league behind the Nets' Lawrence Frank, Brown stepped out of the assistant coach ranks and right into a crucible. Perhaps he didn't entirely know it at the time, but he was taking over a team in a title-starved city that was clutching its first honest-to-goodness sports superstar since Jim Brown.

Clevelanders don't want to wait for a championship. More than four decades is long enough. So at the first sign of Brown sputtering, the wailing and gnashing of teeth begins among the populace, prodded along by the media.

The psychological landscape of Cleveland sports fans and media automatically makes becoming LeBron James' head coach a mine field of criticism festooned with unrealistic win-title-now expectations. And if you tell the fans that our expectations are too high, we'll accuse you of making excuses for yourself.

So who does Brown have to turn to? His team? They've got his back, right? All for one and one for all. That's the motto.

Well, not exactly.

It's not that LeBron and Company go out of their way to circumvent Brown's authority. It's not that they don't take him or their jobs seriously. It's just that LeBron is "The Chosen One," Larry Hughes is the highest-paid player on the team, Damon Jones wears suits that mimic the fur pattern of Serengeti wildcats, and ... well, getting this team to march to the same drumbeat is rather difficult.

We all wonder why Brown can't seem to get this team to play hard night in and night out. It could be that, no matter how hard he tries, he's never going to be able to squeeze maximum effort out of LeBron, Hughes and Drew Gooden every night. They're just going to do their own thing for a variety of reasons that range from ego to fatigue to entering games completely spaced out (Gooden, my eyes are pointing at your eyes.)

Brown can go Gunnery Sergeant Hartman and threaten to PT them until a certain bodily orifice is sucking a certain liquid dairy product, and it might not make a crumb of difference. If Brown were replaced by Larry Brown or Phil Jackson or Rick Carlisle, it might not make a difference.

We might find over the next few years that LeBron is going to play hard when LeBron wants to play hard, no other time, and no amount of discipline will convince him otherwise, because he's LeBron.

Yet when LeBron doesn't exert maximum effort, when the Cavs come out flat and lose to a lottery team, Brown is the man squarely on the hot seat. He's the one not saying the right things in the huddle, the one who isn't reaching his players.

Brown is an inexperienced coach learning on the job in a city that treats anything and everything involving LeBron as a matter of national security. He is trying to build a team the right way according to how he learned from Bernie Bickerstaff, Gregg Popovich and Carlisle, but in a city that doesn't want to wait for a title any longer, a city that has pinned all hope for a title in the near future on his team.

Brown is trying to reform a collection of score-first players into a defense-first team and has found them less than receptive to the transition. His entire job hangs on the willingness of his sometimes-moody, not-yet-totally-mature superstar to accept what he is saying, then go out and play with fire, which he doesn't always do.

Brown doesn't deserve an endless mulligan. He certainly has a big slice of culpability to eat when his team fails. But he eats it willingly, doesn't pass the buck (except occasionally to the refs), and remains focused on improving the team.

If Brown ends up with mediocre grades for his coaching effort this season, two areas in which he should get high marks are attitude and effort, which is something that can't be said for most of the rest of the team.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Throwing us a bone

Before I say what I'm about to say, let me preface:

I like the re-signing of Jake Westbrook in principle. It underscores that the Dolan regime is at least trying to do things the right way. We might bellyache as fans about how the Indians can never seem to land the big fish in free agency, but the big thinkers who run the Indians seem to realize that the quickest way to sour a fan base is to let your own players walk away, year after year.

In that sense, maybe all the suspicion directed at Larry Dolan and his purportedly tight purse strings is helping matters. Maybe Dolan is going out of his way to prove he's not cheap by inking Westbrook, Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Jhonny Peralta to long-term extensions in the past year-plus.

If the Dolans can't paint the brilliant brushstroke that makes the Indians the peerless alpha dog of the American League (a rather unrealistic goal as it is), they are at least ensuring that the quality stable of talent they do have is staying put for the next three-to-five years.

Sure, $11 million per is a bit much to be paying Westbrook, a middle-rotation starter who is this era's equivalent to Charles Nagy or Dave Burba, but following an offseason in which Ted Lilly and Gil Meche received the Sun, Moon and stars, what can you do? Fair market value, that fickle barometer of a player's worth over which agents and general managers haggle constantly, is always swinging in the player's favor, especially when said player is a starting pitcher who is good for double-digit wins every year.

Besides, it's pretty safe to assume that the Indians will get more bang for their buck from Westbrook than, say, the Cavaliers have gotten for their $60 million investment in Larry Hughes.

Overall, snowstorms and Roberto Hernandez appearances notwithstanding, life is pretty good for the Indians right now. Every major piece of the team is in place for at least two more seasons.

But when you live in Cleveland, and next year is all you have, the months tend to melt away pretty quickly.

The concern in this corner is that the Westbrook signing will serve as a pacifier to be shoved in the mouths of rankled, anti-Dolan Tribe fans in the event the two biggest -- and soon to be most expensive -- pieces of this team, Travis Hafner and C.C. Sabathia, aren't re-signed prior to hitting the free agent market following the 2008 season.

If Hafner and Sabathia walk away to more money elsewhere, Indians management could hold up the $33 million they just gave to Westbrook as proof that they do, in fact, spend money.

But this Westbrook deal was a layup compared to what it's going to take to get Hafner, and even more so Sabathia, to put their signatures on an extension.

Hafner is one of the top 10 hitters in the game. Sabathia is a borderline-elite starting pitcher. Already, Sabathia has made no attempt to cover up the fact that he's drooling over the size of the contract he'll be able to reel in the winter after next.

I've stated previously that losing Sabathia potentially wouldn't be as much of a blow as losing Hafner. The Indians have one of the game's best pitching prospects, Adam Miller, on the horizon. They have no such hitting prospect to fill Pronk's shoes. If Sabathia prices himself out of the Indians' range, and there are millions of reasons to believe he will, there are other options within the organization. With Hafner, they are forced to either pay him, or look outside the organization for a replacement bat who can deliver 40 homers, 120 RBI and a .300 average every year.

Though there are always ways to replace players, how the Indians handle their attempts to re-sign their No. 1 pitcher and cleanup hitter will determine, above all, how they are judged by the fans. The good feelings surrounding the Westbrook signing are going to have long since evaporated by the winter of '08. There will be no public-opinion parachute for Indians management if Hafner and Sabathia walk away.

If the Indians can't re-sign one or both, the player who leaves had better come off as a moneygrubbing mercenary with the loyalty of Benedict Arnold, someone who tried to squeeze every last dollar out of the market and turned down a generous offer to stay in Cleveland.

If the Indians make token offers to Sabathia or Hafner, let them walk away and then point to a richer, happier Westbrook as evidence of deep pockets, it's kind of like the wedding guest that immediately gravitates to the toaster or serving dish on the bridal registry and leaves the television set for the other guests to purchase.

Yeah, they bought the newlyweds something. Sure, they accept it with a smile. But every aunt and uncle in 12 states just bought them a toaster for the wedding shower. Are they going to remember that you bought them a two-slice, bagel-compatible toaster, or that some other guy bought them a 32-inch TV set?

Westbrook is the Tribe's toaster. Useful. Practical. Necessary. But you won't remember his contract extension if Sabathia and Hafner are playing for other teams in 2009. And you will blow your stack if ownership tries to fix you a Pop Tart while fans in New York or Boston are watching The Sopranos' final season DVD in high definition on a TV that once belonged to you.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Someone's idea of a sick joke

In an earlier column, I asked everyone to take it easy on the baseball schedule-makers, who have a Herculean task to compile a 162-game schedule for 30 different teams while taking into consideration weighted divisional play, interleague play, travel logistics and other factors.

But then there are the NFL's schedule-makers, who displayed their handiwork on Wednesday with the unveiling of the 2007 league schedule.

As I glanced at the first five weeks of the Browns schedule, which forces them to burn all three divisional home dates before the calendar flips to October, then forces them to play the Patriots to lead off October, I have to wonder exactly what kind of reputation the NFL's schedule scribes have among their baseball, NBA and NHL counterparts.

Are these the guys the National Lacrosse League didn't want? Did these guys get fired from the Canadian Football League front office when they accidentally scheduled the Montreal Alouettes to play back-to-back cross-country roadies against British Columbia and Edmonton?

Seriously: Thirty-two teams. Sixteen games. One bye week. Six divisional games and four opposite-conference games per team. It's not super-easy, but when you consider what other sports have to go through to put together a season, it seems kind of like paint-by-number scheduling.

And this is the best they can come up with for the Browns? Home games against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati to start the season, a West Coast trip to Oakland in Week 3, back home to face the Ravens in Week 4, then on to Massachusetts to face the Patriots in Week 5?

Not only does it mean the Browns face three road divisional games from Nov. 11 on, if Romeo Crennel's 1-11 divisional record as Browns head coach is any indication, it means the Browns have an extremely good chance of having at least four losses in their first five games.

Regardless of the impact of this year's free agent and draft classes, regardless of whether Kellen Winslow Jr. is healthy enough to play by September, nobody in their right mind thinks the Browns are going to be improved enough to win consistently in the AFC's toughest division next year. To ask the Browns to play each divisional opponent one time before the leaves even start turning is cruel and unusual punishment.

If Crennel is truly skating on thin ice with the front office, this early-season gauntlet might ensure that he is out the door before the first Autumn frost, paving the way for interim coach Rob Chudzinski or interim coach Todd Grantham, and another runaway late-season freight train.

The Browns are not a very confident organization right now. The slightest bit of adversity causes their fragile collective ego to tip over and smash into a million pieces. To ask them to face the brutal Steeler defense and high-powered Bengal offense right out of the gate with no respite is akin to taking a sledgehammer to their psyche and just getting the carnage over with.

The fragile-ego thing is the Browns' fault. The schedule makers shouldn't go out of their way to coddle them. But for a team that spends most of its time trying to get it bearings, let alone be competitive or win, to throw them to the divisional wolves so soon like this, with a West Coast intermission and Bill Belichick chaser, seems rather excessive.

If the Browns start the season 0-5 or 1-4, they aren't going to recover to go 8-8 like some teams can. If they start the season 0-5, they are on the fast track to 2-14, regardless of how light or heavy the rest of the schedule is. Once they're down, they're out.

Apparently, that was lost on the NFL's schedule gurus, who just put the Browns and their head coach behind the eight-ball from Day One. Keep the libations and antacid handy if you plan on watching the Browns in September. It appears you'll need them.

Monday, April 09, 2007

A snow job

In Cleveland, we like to count the ways fate smites us on a daily, monthly and yearly basis. Our failures in sports are only representative of whatever else makes us grind our teeth about living here, warranted or unwarranted.

So the fact that the Indians lost their first four home games to a nonstop onslaught of lake effect snow this weekend is merely the garnish on a plate of shoveling backaches and wheels spinning atop snow drifts, a frozen nightmare we thought we left behind more than a month ago.

Alas, this April is putting the "crap" in "crapshoot."

It's almost like the season never started. Buried somewhere in this frozen, white landfill are the buds of what was shaping up to be a pretty good start for the Tribe. A 2-1 series to start the season in Chicago, followed by a 4-0 lead that was nixed by a snowout Friday, one out shy of making the Indians' record 3-1.

Now, that start has been iced. Like a pack of shadow-startled groundhogs, the Indians have been forced back underground, relegated to indoor batting practice, lifting, stretching, and maybe some service-concourse long toss when no one else is around.

When the season resumes Tuesday in a bizarre neutral-site "home" series versus the Angels in Milwaukee, no one knows what shape this club will be in. Already, the cold weather has claimed the quadriceps of Victor Martinez, who will be on the shelf for two weeks at least. Who knows what the long, cold layoff did to the creaky arms of Joe Borowski and Roberto Hernandez?

No one bound to Earth can control the weather, so if you're looking for someone immediate to blame, don't look in the direction of the schedule-makers, who have an extremely difficult job piecing together a 180-odd day schedule of daily games with minimal inconvenience for all involved, while taking into account weighted divisional play, interleague play, travel distance between cities and -- yes, the weather.

You can start by blaming the city of Cleveland for failing to secure the funding to build a retractable dome on the current Gateway site, as was discussed in the mid-80s. You can blame the Gateway project managers for building a ballpark before advancements in technology made retractable-roof venues like Seattle's Safeco Field, Phoenix's Bank One Ballpark and Milwaukee's Miller Park -- the Tribe's overnight hostel for the next three days -- commonplace structures.

A roof would have saved the Seattle series. That's a fact, and that's also a pointless bit of information now.

If you're looking for someone to blame in two months, when three wins in four games against the rebuilding Mariners would have really helped the Tribe in the pressure-cooker AL Central race, then you can point your judgmental finger straight at the Major League Baseball offices in New York City. But aim higher than the mouse-clickers who put the schedule together. Aim right for the Prince of Dimness himself, Commissioner Bud Selig.

It's Bud's brain trust who makes matchups like Seattle versus Cleveland rather infrequent. It's Bud's brain trust who thought it would be a good idea to pile interleague play on top of an unbalanced schedule in which divisional games account for nearly half the season for most teams. Bud Selig is the reason why Seattle and the Los Angeles Angels were scheduled to make their only Cleveland appearances of the season in early April, when snowstorms are far from out of the question.

When a team is required to play 17 or 18 games a year against each of its division rivals, and then 18 to 20 interleague games, the matchups that suffer are the intraleague, non-divisional matchups.

It's why the Tribe's classic rivalries with the Yankees and Red Sox, rivalries that go back a century, have lost some of their familiarity. It's also why, by mid-September, if we have to watch one more Indians-Royals game, the urge to gouge our eyes out with a butter knife is unbearable. I can only imagine Royals fans feel the same way.

It's also why baseball officials were sent scrambling to find some way, any way, to get every inning of this three-game series between the Indians and Angels played, even at the expense of three actual home dates at Jacobs Field. It will cost Tribe fans three chances to see their team in person, on top of the four they already lost. It's hard to believe all four games against the Mariners will be made up unless it impacts the playoff race at season's end.

That's something else to consider. Let's put the cart before the horse for a second and say that if the playoff race is tight and the Indians are involved, they might be forced to play a makeup game -- or even (egads!) a doubleheader -- against the Mariners the day after the regular season was supposed to end. That game or doubleheader could cost the Indians a playoff berth, and even if they make it in, chances are they'd have to turn around and play Game 1 of a playoff series the next day. Not great for arranging your pitching staff.

This entire fiasco of relocating a series and the "will they/won't they" of the four missed Mariners games could have been avoided if the Mariners and Angels were slated to visit Cleveland again later this year. The make-up games could have been spaced out, paired in day-night doubleheaders with regularly-scheduled games, and maybe one mutual off-day could have been used for a make-up game.

Instead, the Indians will now go from an unscheduled bit of extended offseason to a neutral-site series, with the threat of four makeup games dangling over them likely the entire season.

The snow clouds will part soon, and the snow will melt. But the Bud Selig regime and their knack for making poor, short-sighted decisions is a cloud that isn't leaving baseball any time soon.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Snowed out

Early season momentum is such a tenuous thing in baseball. An all-important good start for the Indians might have been dealt a blow in Friday's home opener.

In driving snow, with Indians starter Paul Byrd up 4-0 and one out away from ending the top of the fifth and making the game official, Mariners manager Mike Hargrove picked then to launch into a tirade about how his batters couldn't see the ball because of the snow.

The umpire crew, Hargrove and Eric Wedge proceeded to have an animated discussion about whether the game should continue. Hargrove won, the game was called, and the Mariners got away with a snow-aided non-game that nixed 4 2/3 innings of no-hit ball from Byrd, who was none too happy afterward.

For all we know, the inconsistent Byrd might not go 4 2/3 innings without giving up a hit for the rest of the season.

"When they finally called the game, (the Mariners) were laughing and high-fiving each other in the dugout like they'd gotten away with something," Byrd told The Plain Dealer. "And they did."

Byrd wasn't so angry with the fact that the game was called as with how it was called.

Snow showers wreaked havoc with the game all day, delaying the start by almost an hour and then causing two more delays while the game was in progress. There was ample time for the umpire crew to make a decision on the game before it got to within an out of becoming official.

Crew chief Rick Reed told reporters that "both managers had legitimate gripes" when they came out to argue the fate of the game in the fifth inning. The Indians had a 4-0 lead and didn't want to see it go up in a puff of smoke. The Mariners might not have been in a 4-0 hole had Adrian Beltre not made three weather-aided errors at third base. The Mariners almost certainly would have had a hit if not for the snow.

It's understandable that everyone involved wanted to get the game in. Friday's situation was as much on the schedule makers as anyone. The schedule makers placed Seattle's only trip to Cleveland this year at the start of April, where anyone with half a brain knows parka versus sunscreen is a 50-50 proposition.

Saturday's make-up doubleheader was also snowed out, turning this entire weekend into an all-out scheduling fiasco. It means the teams need to play back-to-back doubleheaders Sunday and Monday, or find a way to play a one-day makeup doubleheader later in the year.

It's difficult to assess blame because the weather can't be controlled. But I still get the feeling that the Indians somehow had the rug pulled out from under them by the way things went down Friday. And now they have until Sunday afternoon to stew over it.

The Indians have had enough trouble getting off to good starts in recent years. They don't need to be blindsided by a combination of bad weather, bad scheduling and umpires who wait until the last possible moment to pull the plug on a game.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Bye bye, 2-seed

Thursday's 94-90 overtime loss to the Heat was bad in multiple ways for the Cavaliers. Not only did they lose yet another winnable late-season game, they had to go to overtime to do it, on the first night of back-to-backs.

Worst of all, the Cavs are now officially out of the second seed by virtue of a lost tiebreak with the Bulls.

There are still six games left in the regular season, and plenty of time for the Cavs to undo all the damage they have been doing to themselves over the past two weeks. But I think if I had to place my money on playoff seeding, I'd assume the Cavs are not going to recover enough to retain the second seed after the season's final game. Thursday's loss, combined with Chicago's dismantling of the Pistons on Wednesday night, scrawled the handwriting on the wall for me.

The Bulls are simply playing too well, and there is no reason to believe the Cavs are going to get off this win-one, lose-one treadmill anytime soon. Unfortunately, the season is going to end up being about two weeks too long for the stagnating Cavs to hold off the surging Bulls.

If I were the Cavs, now that they've lost to Miami, I'd become the world's biggest Heat fans until the end of the regular season. Now that you've surrendered a game to them in the standings, you want the Heat to play well, pass Toronto and clinch the third seed, allowing the Raptors to fall to the Cavs in the 4-5 matchup.

Unless the Cavs totally tank these last two weeks (I probably should bite my tongue), it seems pretty safe to assume they will end the season with a better record than Toronto or Miami, and consequently secure homecourt advantage over either team in the first round.

But that's a small consolation for a team that was on the fast track to their highest playoff seeding ever, even dreaming of catching the Pistons for the East's best record, and now appear to be backsliding into the playoffs in a miniature version of the collapse that cost them a playoff berth two years ago.

The sluggishness that has marked this team at the offensive end all year now appears to be creeping into their defensive game, which is the pride and joy of coach Mike Brown, but has yet to become so popular with LeBron James and Larry Hughes.

Here's hoping the mess of the past two weeks doesn't carry over into the playoffs. Here's hoping it doesn't lead to an early exit and a long, hot summer to think about how it all went wrong.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Stay just a little bit longer

(With apologies to Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, Jackson Browne and whomever else covered this song...)

"Won't you stay
Just a little bit longer
Please won't you stay
Just a little bit more

Well the papers won't smear
And Thad won't shed a tear
And the Celtics won't fear
If you take your sophomore year
and play -- one more song."

Greg Oden, I'm saying this as objectively as I can. Believe me, no one wants to see your NBA career start more than I, but you need to come back to Ohio State.

Just one more year. I promise.

Yeah, I can see that look on your grizzled, old teenage face. I'm asking you to pass up on millions of dollars to play college hoops for one more year. Ridiculous, huh?

Oh sure, you say. Every Buckeye fan and their cousin wants to see you come back. We're going to spend every waking hour between now and the football spring game gnashing our teeth over Monday's national title game loss.

We want you back for purely selfish reasons. We want you to come back and right the wrong that occurred against Florida. You have bigger, greener fish to fry. You have checks to cash, and you desperately want to try one of those patented chin-up dunks on Dwight Howard next year.

Well, sure, I guess selfishness does play into it more than just a little bit. But there is more to it than that.

You aren't quite there yet, Greg. You need this year to prepare yourself for what the NBA will throw at you.

It all became clear while watching you play your first real workhorse minutes on Monday. Unfettered by injury or fouls, you turned in a major performance -- 25 points and 12 rebounds in 38 minutes -- that might have singlehandedly won the game had the opponent not been Florida. You were blocking shots (4, very emphatically), snagging rebounds and displaying a rapidly-developing offensive arsenal.

But you were also tired in the second half. You missed layups and fumbled passes that helped give the Gators the breathing room they needed to win. You were plainly sucking wind as the half wore on.

It's the unfortunate byproduct of a smart strategy by coach Thad Matta, one that called for judicious monitoring of your minutes, first as you eased your way into the swing of things with a mending right hand, then as you developed a propensity for drawing fouls early in games. Under Matta's watchful eye, you routinely missed huge chunks of the first halves of games during the NCAA Tournament run as Matta guarded against your third foul.

The bottom line is, you haven't been completely challenged by the grind of a college basketball season, let alone what is going to be expected of you as a No. 1 or No. 2 NBA draft pick.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not questioning your toughness. I'm questioning your readiness. The NBA game is exponentially faster, the players are far stronger and the schedule is infinitely more grueling with long West Coast road trips and a highly-irregular season pace, with stretches of four games in five days followed by two games in six days.

Combine that with the fact that you are going to be headed to one of the NBA's bottom feeders, and their front office and fans are going to be looking to you to reverse the fortunes of their downtrodden team. Being a franchise savior isn't easy. Ask LeBron James.

I don't doubt that you have an army of people readying you for what the NBA will bring, Greg. But don't you think you'd be better served making the jump to the pros after having really tested yourself at the college level? After playing a sophomore season where the training wheels come off and you are really allowed to flex your muscles?

Money will probably ultimately lure you to declare for the draft. I can't really blame you there. But before you hire an agent and ready yourself to pull on a Grizzlies or Celtics cap at the end of June, just take a moment and ask yourself if you'd rather enter the NBA as a kid, behind the learning curve and relegated to the bench as a rookie, or as a man, ahead of the curve and ready to dominate.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The hardwood gridiron

An Ohio State grad once posed the following question to me:

"Do you know the most important day during OSU basketball season?"

I shrugged. Selection Sunday? I didn't know.

"National signing day for football," he replied. I don't think he was kidding, either.

For Ohio, a state that isn't known for having a lot of success in basketball, pro or college, a state that has a football-crazed fan base that is known -- fairly or unfairly -- for not really caring that they don't have a lot of success in basketball, Saturday's national seminfinal games set up an appropriate final chapter for a school and a state looking for redemption from gridiron humiliation three months ago.

Monday night, Ohio State and Florida will once again square off with a national championship on the line. In the swamps of central Florida, it's about carving a place in history, about doing what no team has done since the 1992 Duke Blue Devils and repeating as national champs. For those of us sandwiched between the shores of Lake Erie and the banks of the Ohio River, it's about payback.

This isn't the NCAA basketball title game to Ohioans. This is the BCS title game, Part II.

A lot of Ohio State fans wanted this. They wanted a chance to settle things with Florida, to serve revenge cold, to make Gator basketball coach Billy Donovan pay for Urban Meyer's mastery of Jim Tressel on the football field in January.

But in many ways, this is the worst matchup that could have happened for Buckeye fans.

Ohio State fans might percieve this as Greg Oden bearing the cross of Troy Smith, as somehow the basketball team has inherited the pain of January's football beatdown and needs to avenge their humiliated comrades.

Sure, Tressel might give the roundballers a pep talk prior to Monday's game. He might even throw a few "Buckeye Pride" references in there. But Thad Matta's club isn't necessarily playing for revenge. They aren't playing to restore the pride of the football program. They're playing under circumstances that are far different from those the football team faced three months ago.

For Buckeye basketball, the scenery is as different as if you left The Horseshoe, threaded your way past St. John Arena, across Lane Avenue, over the Olentangy and up the hill to the Schottenstein Center. It's about two miles and a world apart.

The football team entered the BCS title game as overwhelming favorites. The basketball team enters their national championship as underdogs. The Gator football squad was an upstart, the Gator basketball squad is the pacesetter.

The Buckeye football team had 50 days to prepare for Florida, probably too long. The basketball team has less than 48 hours, which might be too short, or it might be just right. Sometimes not having a lot of time to think is a good thing when you're the underdog.

But if you are a Buckeye football fan looking for a measure of revenge, this might be the most compelling reason to drop that line of thinking:

The risk/reward factor isn't too good.

Think about it. Is a Buckeye win on Monday going to erase January's humiliation for a school that ties its national image to its football program so completely? Probably not. In football circles, Ohio State is still going to be the team that let its foot off the gas when they went up 7-0 in the first quarter, then allowed Florida to land a haymaker.

If Ohio State loses on Monday night, the humiliation will be doubled. You will not be able to wear a piece of Ohio State gear anywhere in north or central Florida for the next 365 days without being picked on mercilessly by fans of a school that got the best of you in the title games of two marquee sports, three months apart.

In Ohio, we're kind of used to humiliation when it comes to sports. But that level of embarrassment seems excessive, even around here.

So my purely unsolicited advice is, go ahead and root for Ohio State with all the passion you can muster on Monday night. These opportunities don't come along very often in these parts. But if you are going to root, root for the basketball team. Don't re-live the BCS title game vicariously through the basketballers.

The football team had their chance against Florida and blew it. Accept that. Monday is a chance for a completely different team to leave a completely different legacy among the Ohio faithful.