Saturday, January 26, 2008

Great expectations

The net result of most losses in professional sports is blame -- who fell asleep at the switch, who didn't execute a play at crunch time, who gets to wear the goat horns until his team has a chance to redeem itself.

But Friday's 110-108 Cavaliers loss to the Suns was a rare exception. Sure, there was blame to go around. After setting a blistering-hot pace with 69 first-half points, the Cavs scored just 39 in the second half. They let the Suns convert 17 three-pointers, a record versus the Cavs.

But unlike some of the Cavs' earlier losses when they were still floundering below the .500 mark, there was no real reason for gnashing of teeth. This was a loss with honor, if such a thing exists.

The Cavs played one of the league's elite teams, and not-so-arguably the league's best offense, held a double-digit lead for the majority of the game, but ran into trouble at the end against a team well-versed in fourth quarter basketball. Shawn Marion's lone bucket of the game with three seconds left was the game-winner. The Cavs had every right in the world to tip their hats to Steve Nash and Company, and move on.

But the Cavs -- more specifically, LeBron James -- didn't. And the fact that they didn't shows that this is a team starting to behave like a contender.

Following an apparent miscommunication with Larry Hughes on the game's final play, LeBron left the floor with a glower that could have killed upon eye contact. He kicked a garbage can in the hallway to the locker room.

LeBron might have been furious with how the final seconds played out, but his reaction said something more. He expected to win this game. He was furious that he and his team didn't. Everything in his demeanor said "If we could play the final minutes over again, I know we'd win."

It's a long way from Early-Career LeBron, the giggling college-age kid whom losses barely fazed. This is the LeBron channeling the competitive fire of Michael Jordan. This is the LeBron who has had a taste of playoff success and wants to get back to the Finals for another crack at the best of the West.

At this point, maybe a lot of you are saying "Well, then Danny Ferry had better get on the phone and start making trades, because there is no way LeBron is getting past Detroit or Boston with this rag-tag supporting cast." You might be right ... but then again, maybe not.

Do you realize the straw LeBron has been able to spin into gold in the past year? It's almost intimidating to think about how little help he needs to take a team with utterly average talent and turn them into borderline-great.

For their lack of impressive stats, the guys who surround LeBron are starting to grasp how they fit around him.

As a team, the Cavs are playing good defense, even excellent defense in the fourth quarter. For the first time since the LeBron era began, the Cavs are starting to become a good ball-movement team, able to excel at playing in the halfcourt beyond "Give the ball to LeBron and get out of the way."

Daniel Gibson and Damon Jones are knocking down threes on the wings off LeBron's penetrations. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden and Anderson Varejao are cleaning the glass to the tune of more than eight rebounds per game each. To boot, Z and Andy are each averaging more than three offensive boards per game.

In other words, the Cavs are becoming a fundamentally-sound team that moves the ball, plays solid five-man defense, rebounds at both ends of the floor looks for the open shot and believes they can own the fourth quarter. They aren't quite the Spurs yet, but they beat the Spurs at their own game less than two weeks ago.

In any sport, if you have a team that plays the right way and minimizes mistakes, it can compensate for a lack of superlative talent across the board. The Spurs and Patriots are the blueprint. Those teams have owned the first decade of the new millennium in their respective sports.

Certainly, Ferry should always be looking to better the Cavs' roster. They still have a need for an offense-facilitating point guard, and a shooting guard in the mold of Michael Redd would do wonders for stretching defenses. But I think there is definitely something to the idea that if you keep a group of players together for a while, teach them the right things and let them succeed and fail together, eventually you'll end up with a seasoned team that knows what it can accomplish.

The Cavs have set the pace for themselves since Christmas by beating Dallas and San Antonio on the road. Twice this season, they have had double-digit leads against Phoenix, only to lose in the fourth quarter.

The net result is a team -- and superstar leader -- that now expects to win when they take the floor. The Cavs of 2008 do not feel overmatched heading into any game. The proof is in their 9-2 record since the new year.

It's a giant step in the right direction for this team. They are now winning the battle they had lost so many times before: the battle inside their own collective head.

If LeBron and his teammates keep expecting to win every game, and backing it up with their play, it's far from a pipe dream for fans to expect more June basketball in Cleveland.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The great gamble

Miguel Cabrera. Dontrelle Willis. Orlando Cabrera. Delmon Young. Scott Linebrink. Jacque Jones. Edgar Renteria. Nick Swisher.

For the teams of the American League Central to have done any more wheeling and dealing this offseason, they would have needed a deck of cards and a blackjack table.

As we all know, none of the above players will be wearing Indians uniforms at the outset of the season. The Indians front office, calculated risk managers almost to a fault, have presented us with a glacially-slow offseason in stark contrast to those of the White Sox, Twins and Tigers.

Of course, none of the above players' teams are the defending division champs, either, which helps lend legitimacy to the idea that the Tribe is the division's top dog, the team that tied Boston for the most wins in baseball last year, so the burden is on the other teams to move their chess pieces in an effort to get better.

While Minnesota and Chicago made several moves of note between them, the real story that caught everyone's attention was the frantic fortification of the Tigers. Armed with his notorious quick-strike mentality, Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski pulled his trade trigger early and often, securing Jones, Renteria, Miguel Cabrera and Willis in rapid-fire succession. By mid-December, the Tigers were the talk of the offseason, and will surely be at the top of most prognosticators' preseason AL Central predictions.

It would be easy for those of us in Cleveland to scoff at what the Tigers did. It seems like a panicked overreaction to finishing a distant second one year after reaching the World Series. The Tigers are gambling with their depth and their future by purging the upper levels of their farm system of top-flight prospects like Cameron Maybin, who will reportedly be the Marlins' opening day starter in center field after being shipped south in the Cabrera-Willis trade.

But make no mistake about it: If the Tigers are gambling, the Indians are gambling too.

Last season, the Indians farm system supplied the major league roster with everything it needed to mount a serious World Series charge that came up one win short. The farm system absorbed the shock of a largely-unproductive free agent class by cranking out promising youngsters like Franklin Gutierrez, Rafael Perez and Asdrubal Cabrera.

Casey Blake provided the ultimate bandage at third base, allowing the Tribe to send a struggling Andy Marte back to Buffalo. And let's not forget the full-season debut of Fausto Carmona as a starting pitcher, which succeeded beyond anyone's wildest, craziest, acid-trippiest fantasies.

In short, as much as the Tigers treated their farm system like so much currency to spend on acquiring veterans, the Indians are treating their farm system like the ultimate safety net.

In a Plain Dealer article Wednesday, Shapiro referred to the organization's depth as "a separator." In GM-speak, that means he believes what the Tigers did to their farm system is risky, maybe even foolish, and something that could -- or maybe should -- put the Tigers at a competitive disadvantage.

Depth is always a good thing, and there is no doubt that the Indians are among the deepest teams in baseball with capable, major-league ready talent.

But here is the $64,000 question: Can the farm system not only once again shoulder the load of providing the needed upgrades that every team searches for each winter, but can it also go above and beyond that to help the Indians maintain last year's competitive margin over the obviously-improved Tigers?

In essence, Shapiro is betting that the talent the Buffalo Bisons and Akron Aeros gave the big-league club last year, and will hopefully give it again this year, is enough to compensate for the Tigers landing Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis, Jacque Jones and noted Indian-killer Edgar Renteria.

It sure seems like a heavy burden to place on your farm clubs.

I'm all in favor of not making moves simply to make moves, or simply as a reaction to what another team did. But the Indians still have no fulltime left fielder, a questionable-at-best situation with Gutierrez in right field, and the only upgrade made to a solid-but-shallow bullpen was Masa Kobayashi, a former Japanese league star on the wrong side of 30, with zero games of major league experience on his resume.

Maybe Shapiro views this as the spoils of hoisting the title banner of arguably baseball's toughest division. The pack leader can afford to sit pretty and watch everybody else try and scramble to catch up.

But what if they did? Goodness knows, no one has been working at it like Dombrowski since November. The fact that the Indians failed to make any moves of note outside of signing Kobayashi certainly seems like it plays right into Dombrowski's hands as he and Jim Leyland attempt to sell their team on the idea that they've caught up to Cleveland.

How will this affect both teams psychologically? The Tigers will arrive in spring training with a much-needed shot in the arm after a disappointing end to a highly-anticipated season. The Indians, meanwhile, will arrive in spring training with an excuse to look over their shoulders.

Sure, Eric Wedge can try to focus his team on taking care of their own business, but no team exists in a vacuum. Even Tribe players who insist that they never read the papers or watch ESPN will certainly hear more than they care to about the much-improved Tigers, favored to win the AL Central.

For Wedge and Indians management to believe that their players will simply shrug off the buzz that will surround the Tigers and develop tunnelvision about their own team is not realistic. They're human, after all.

Even if Wedge succeeds in cultivating a taking-care-of-business mentality among his players, they're still going to have to compete with an energized Tigers club that is a prime candidate to burst out of the gate to a fast start.

Granted, it's about how you finish a season, not how you start. But while the Indians' brass might view their offseason versus their division rivals' offseasons as a matter of headline-grabbing style versus farm-system substance, you could also make the case that there is a touch of arrogance involved on the part of Shapiro.

The Indians were good last year. Actually, they were very good. Good enough to knock the Yankees out of the playoffs, and almost good enough to do the same to the Red Sox, which is unquestionably the best team in baseball.

But fortunes change. Other teams make moves. Injuries happen. Slumps kill stat lines. By making no moves of note, Shapiro is basically betting that none of that will affect the Indians -- or if it does, there will be a ready-made antidote already in-house.

Dombrowski bet that he needed to make impact moves to make his team better. Maybe he went overboard. But Shapiro is betting that everything his team needs to win the World Series, let alone fend off the Tigers, is right there under his organizational umbrella. That might be going too far in the other direction.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Taunting us over LeBron

I know TrueHoop is one of the best NBA blogs out there, tested and approved by the Akron Beacon Journal's Brian Windhorst.

If Windhorst says it's a good source for NBA news, it's a good source for NBA news. That's how much I trust him with my basketball knowledge.

But, damned if TrueHoop still isn't affiliated with ESPN, and thus, still among the national media legion counting the ways that LeBron James could leave Cleveland.

Apparently, we in Cleveland shouldn't dread only the approach of the summer of 2010, when LeBron can opt out of his deal and become an unrestricted free agent. We should also fear the summer of 2009, when LeBron could express his displeasure with the state of the Cavs roster by telling Danny Ferry that he's not signing a new deal here come hell or high water, thereby forcing Ferry to trade him.

No rest for the weary. As long as LeBron stays in Cleveland, we will constantly be subjected to this relentless onslaught, LeBron's many escape hatches from the Cavs paraded in front of us for the pleasure of East Coast basketball fans who know, in their heart of hearts, that it would be best for the league if LeBron would ditch our little, nondescript Midwestern burg for the Knicks, Nets or Celtics.

East Coast basketball fans and scribes just want what's best for the NBA, after all. I got choked up as I wrote that. On vomit, not tears.

It's easy to count the ways LeBron could leave Cleveland when it's Sanitized For Your Protection. LeBron just takes off the Cavs uniform and puts on a Knicks uniform. Simple, right? LeBron saves the Knicks, and Cleveland ... well, who cares?

But this is what irritates me: TrueHoop can talk about LeBron demanding a trade from the Cavs like it's moving a chess piece on a giant table. But do you realize how cutthroat a move like that would be? Do you realize the set of brass ones it would take to go up to your boss and say "I think you've done a terrible job building a team around me, trade me now because I'm leaving."

Bridge nuked? Check. Now LeBron gets to head to his new team with a Jeff McInnis-esque reputation as an "independent contractor" who will simply demand a trade when he doesn't like a situation.

LeBron fancies himself a slick businessman. He'd have to know that treating the organization that drafted him with such coldness would be a bad move. The East Coast media might think Cleveland is an insect to be squashed in the world of sports, a doormat that can be trampled with no fear of retribution. But LeBron would have to be a better businessman than to callously demand a trade without seriously considering all options and discussing it with many different people.

These are the residual scenarios that are seldom considered when spinning the "Where Will LeBron Go?" wheel.

Most scribes who pen columns insinuating that LeBron's loyalty to the Cavaliers is hanging by a perpetual thread seem to come to the same conclusion: Danny Ferry is a dolt who has butchered the construction of the roster around LeBron. It's a sentiment shared by many Cavs fans who claim to know what's going on with the team.

(Keep in mind there are many Cavs fans who think Ferry is the one who let Carlos Boozer out of his contract. Hopefully those fans will arrive in 2008 any day now.)

I tend to defend Ferry in these matters, and I take a lot of heat for it. Why do I defend a GM who is viewed as so uniformly indefensible? I could go the route of blaming all the draft picks wasted by his predecessor, Jim Paxson, the Jiri Welsch trade that robbed the Cavs of two first-round picks in three years and the Boozer fiasco

But the missed draft picks were a big reason why the Cavs were bad enough to get LeBron in the first place, so it kind of becomes a Catch-22.

My reasoning for defending Ferry on roster matters is this: what more do you want from the guy? In two years, he infused the team with enough talent to allow Mike Brown to implement a defense that allowed LeBron to use his vast talents to beat a superior Pistons team and earn the franchise's first NBA Finals berth.

When the Cavs drafted LeBron in 2003, they were among the worst organizations in pro sports. They had Boozer, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and literally nothing else worth building around -- even though Ricky Davis had a pretty high opinion of himself at that point.

Two years later, the Cavs were starting Ira Newble at the two-guard and completely fell apart down the stretch, narrowly missing the playoffs with Brendan Malone, an interim head coach, at the helm because Paul Silas decided that spiting Jeff McInnis was more important than winning a game in which LeBron scored 56 points, and was subsequently fired.

At the same time, Gordon Gund was selling his majority stake in the team to Dan Gilbert, signifying an organizational paradigm shift from old-school to new-school.

Enter Ferry and Mike Brown shortly thereafter. Starting together from essentially scratch, with LeBron their only real asset, the tandem that everyone loves to hate has won 120 regular season games through Tuesday and four playoff series in about two and a half seasons.

Yet everyone expects Ferry to poof a roster rivaling that of the Spurs and Mavericks onto the floor, or his name is mud and we can't blame LeBron for wanting to leave.

Ferry hasn't batted 1.000 with his moves. Far from it. But no GM does. Given the compost heap Ferry inherited, with no huge expiring deals save for Z's, one free agent class of note and one draft in three offseasons, I don't know if the greatest GMs in the game could have done much better with the Cavs.

Ferry hasn't had a lot to work with in his three years running the Cavs roster. He's going to make mistakes, like any GM. But to go from no playoffs to the top of the conference while still enduring underproductive veterans and fallout from the Jim Paxson era, that's as close to a magical transformation as you'll find in the NBA.

No one here is looking to heap undue praise on Ferry, who still has a lot of work to do. But with tens of millions of dollars in expiring deals over the next two offseasons, Ferry has a chance to do the work. It would be nice if he'd get credit for what he has already done.

For crying out loud, LeBron probably has more confidence in Ferry than anyone in the stands or on press row. And he's the one who is supposed to be storming into Ferry's office and telling him to shove it, remember?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Wild Thing states his case

There wasn't a lot of black and white in the Anderson Varejao holdout saga, which has already faded into the back of most fans' minds.

Danny Ferry held all the cards. He held Varejao's rights as a restricted free agent, he reserved the right to match any offer another team would make, and he was dealing with a player who had a very limited market for his services. No other team was coming out of the woodwork to pay him the kind of money he was seeking -- or any money for that matter, since it was common knowledge that the Cavs would match any reasonable offer.

Still, news reports said Varejao was stubbornly hunkered down on a contract demand somewhere in the $9-10 million per year range. Varejao later refuted those published claims, but whatever he was demanding, Ferry wasn't biting, and the standoff continued into the season.

Public favor largely rested with Cavs management during the entire fiasco. Ferry was attempting to avoid another crippling contract by refusing to shell out too much money for a role player -- in this case, a player high on energy but short on skill, a player many fans and media members deemed replaceable.

It was Varejao who was being unreasonable, we said. He was the one listening to his shark agent, the one overestimating his market value, the one who was apparently too proud to admit he made a miscalculation.

Harsh words followed. Varejao accused Ferry of breaching protocol by making a clandestine trip to see Varejao in Brazil before the start of the season. Ferry said he made the trip because he had been stonewalled from communicating with his player. Varejao countered by saying the Cavs didn't deal in good faith, and that he didn't want to play here anymore.

By the time the Bobcats gave Varejao the out he was looking for, signing him to an offer sheet that would finally force the Cavs to match and break the stalemate, it was already December and damage had been done to the season.

The Cavs were plodding along at that point, reeling from the results of a six-game losing streak that coincided with LeBron James in street clothes attempting to nurse a sprained finger back to health. They were below .500 for the first extended period since LeBron's rookie season of 2003-04, when they finished 35-47.

Then, on Dec. 11, LeBron, Varejao and Larry Hughes all returned in a 118-105 win over the Pacers, and the team's fortunes turned upward.

Since the return of Varejao from his extended offseason, the Cavs are 10-6, including a 5-1 record in January. It's not a coincidence or merely the psychological effect of the team being made whole again. Varejao has had a very real impact on the win-loss column for the Cavs since returning, and it's becoming apparent that the next time the two sides visit the contract negotiating table, Varejao will be in the driver's seat.

His basic stat line reads like a very good bench player's should: 8 points, 8.7 rebounds and half a blocked shot in about 28 minutes per game. But that's only the tip of the iceberg.

The real story of Varejao's return with a vengeance is that 48 of his 139 rebounds this season are offensive; that he's shooting 50 percent from the floor and not all of his made shots are tip-ins or putbacks.

Mike Brown is starting to draw plays that call for LeBron to find Varejao cutting to the basket. The man with hands I once believed were the worst in the NBA is actually a more sure-handed receiver for LeBron's fastballs than teammate Drew Gooden, whose hands should be scarred from all the LeBron passes that have smacked off them and out of bounds.

The real story is that Varejao, since returning, has become the most dynamic, well-rounded big man on the roster, capable of rebounding, playing a little defense, and deceptively using an improving offensive game that not a lot of people know about yet.

If you're a Cavs fan, you want the rest of the country's image of Varejao to come from Game 3 of the NBA Finals, when he foolishly tried to force an errant layup with time winding down, instead of passing back out to LeBron. You want all the other teams to believe that the player they should really be worried about is Gooden.

It makes Varejao's job a lot easier when you write him off as a gangly, uncoordinated pup with no real skills. It allows him to mask his growing basketball intelligence, his knowledge of how to plant his feet just so, take a charge in the sternum and fall over so that the refs toot their whistles in spite of the NBA's anti-flopping crackdown.

It allows him to mask his ability to gain position on opposing players in the rebounding trenches, then relentlessly swipe at the ball with a series of deflections aimed at preventing the other would-be rebounders from getting both their hands securely on the ball.

Like the distorted post-impressionist works of Vincent Van Gogh, Varejao's thrashing, flailing and flopping might look like the brushstrokes of a madman to some, or at least the scrawlings of an amateur. But it might actually be genius unrealized in its own time.

Varejao has always had a unique skill set as a basketball player. It's far from perfected, but even as it stands now, it's a skill set that helps the Cavs win ballgames. It's a skill set that was sorely missed by the Cavs for the month-plus that Varejao sat in Brazil.

Varejao is the glue that holds Mike Brown's bench together. With him, it's a serviceable unit. Without him, it's pretty much dead weight, even with the sharpshooting of Daniel Gibson available.

When -- or hopefully before -- Varejao becomes an unrestricted free agent the summer after next, Ferry would be wise to realize what he has in Varejao, and be ready to pay him as such.

While Ferry was right to not overpay this time and load another cumbersome contract onto the Cavs' collective back, Varejao's unrestricted free agency will be a different story. Not only will Varejao demand a huge raise, by that point in time, there might be teams out there willing to give him the money he wants.

If the first month-plus of Varejao's return to the Cavs is any indication, Varejao is developing into a star, someone the Cavs cannot afford to part with in the years leading up to LeBron's own unrestricted free agency, when it will be critical to show him that he can be a long-term title contender in his home state.

Hopefully, the coming year and a half will allow time for Ferry and Varejao to rebuild any bridges that were burned during the recent contract fiasco. Otherwise the Cavs and Cleveland fans might find out the hard way that Varejao isn't as replaceable as we once believed.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Back up to speed

Apologies, but a planned weekend trip followed by an unplanned early-week bout with the flu caused my blog to once again fall dormant for an extended period.

As the straggling virus bodies still swimming around in my head are making it difficult for me to concentrate long enough to pen a coherent full-length column on a single subject, let me just offer up a few thoughts on the most recent newsworthy sports stories:

1. BCS Title Game ... ick

At first I thought Jim Tressel was on to something with this whole "do exactly the opposite of what you did last year against Florida" thing. He opened the floodgates, let Todd Boeckman pass downfield on first down, and used that to set up the run. It looked like a genius move when Chris Wells scampered 65 yards for one of his patented objects-in-mirror-may-be-faster-than-they-appear touchdowns.

Alas, reality soon set in, and when the Bucks had to settle for a field goal and a 10-0 lead instead of a touchdown and a 14-0 lead, I could feel the air starting to leave the sails. The rest of the way, LSU looked composed and confident, while the Buckeyes -- especially Boeckman -- looked like the little team on the big stage.

Ohio State was an athletically overmatched team Monday night. Even if you are Big Ten to the bone and loathe all things SEC, you have to admit that Monday's game pretty much signed, sealed and delivered everything you wanted to disprove about the two conferences.

Monday, it sure as heck looked like the best the Big Ten has to offer couldn't hang with the best the SEC has to offer. You can counter-argue with Michigan over Florida in the Capital One Bowl on New Year's Day, but that appears to be the exception -- not to mention Michigan was trying to send Lloyd Carr out a winner.

The Big Ten teams that made it to BCS games were manhandled. Like the Buckeyes, Illinois didn't deserve to be in their game. It was embarrassing for the entire conference to watch Illinois get smoked by USC in the Rose Bowl.

Monday, it sure as heck looked like the only reason Ohio State made it to the BCS title game was by eating snack food for a non-conference schedule and then beating up on inferior Big Ten competition the rest of the way. Everything you wanted to believe wasn't true was, in fact, as real as the nose on your face.

This year, with its upsets and world-turned-upside-down rankings, was quite possibly the best argument for a playoff system yet. If it prevents Ohio State from being held up as a national title contender when they are certainly not, I'm all for it.

2. GMAC Bowl ... ick-squared

I guess I can't complain. Bowling Green has won five of their last seven bowl appearances, which already gives them a higher winning percentage than Ohio State. But .... losing 63-7. To Tulsa. On the eve of what would prove to be a miserable BCS title game. It's just too much.

The game was supposed to be a match-up of high-powered offenses. Double-40s for a final score wasn't out of the question. Of course, Tulsa had the best offense in the nation this year -- historically great, actually, as they became the first NCAA team ever to post a 5,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher.

I've watched Mid-American Conference football for seven years. I covered it for one season as a student reporter at BGSU. And there is one prejudice I don't know if I will ever overcome after seeing this debacle.

MAC teams can't play any friggin' defense. Nope. Show me all the stats you want. I'll never believe that there has ever been such a thing as an "elite" MAC defense. In the MAC, defenses are placeholders intended to give the offense time to breathe between possessions.

I have a crackpot theory about this: When a major-conference school recruits Johnny Blue-Chip QB from Anytown High School, U.S.A., they might want to switch Johnny to safety or cornerback. They might want Johnny to start out on special teams and get a better idea of where he fits in.

When a midmajor school like those in the MAC recruit Johnny, the only real trump card they have over the Ohio States and Michigans of the world is they can guarantee Johnny he will stay a QB. Hence, all the top-notch talent that can make a MAC football team competitive is at the choice positions like QB and receiver, because that's how a MAC school gets Big Ten-level talent into their program.

Translation: contending MAC teams score and score some more. But it wasn't happening for BG. Not Sunday, anyway.

3. Chud, Romeo and Mr. Anderson

If reports on Wednesday are true, we know three things about the 2008 Browns: Romeo Crennel will enter the season with a nice extra wad of cash thanks to a new contract extension, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski will do the same, and Derek Anderson will open training camp as the starting quarterback with a new deal of his own.

Crennel and Anderson made fans chafe at times this season, and there was some grinding of teeth over Chud's reported interview for the Baltimore Ravens' vacant head coaching job last week. But all in all, I'd have to say that stability is a very good thing for the Browns, who haven't seen a lot of it.

Too often, fans get caught up in what moves it will take to get the team to the "next level." Even as this 10-6 season wound down, there were fans convinced that Crennel wasn't the right man for the job, or that Anderson should be ushered out of town to make way for Quinn.

But sometimes, experience is the main ingredient needed to turn a competitive team into a perennial playoff contender. This year was a stepping stone, but the Browns won't be able to build on it if certain key parts of the team are tossed back to square one.

I still think Brady Quinn is the long-term solution at quarterback. I still don't know if Crennel's retirement or Browns football in late January will arrive first. But for an organization that just experienced it's first non-disastrous football season in quite a while, I say stay the course for now. The time for change will make itself evident. There's no need to hasten it.

4. It's about time, Cavs

As I'm writing this post, the Cavs just finished laying a nice, stinky egg in Atlanta. But even with that performance against an admittedly-improved Hawks team on the second night of back-to-backs, you can't argue with six wins in eight games.

This is the Eastern Conference championship club I knew from last year. The starting lineup of Larry Hughes, Sasha Pavlovic, LeBron, Drew Gooden and Z is the best Mike Brown can trot out there, and it's set up a nice bench rotation of Andy Varejao, Devin Brown, Boobie Gibson and Damon Jones.

Danny Ferry did right in playing hardball with Andy and not caving to his contract demands. But with the impact Varejao has had in solidifying the Cavs bench, Ferry had better be prepared to offer him a substantial extension next year. Andy is very important to this team. He is to the bench bunch what LeBron is to the starters. He's the enging that makes them go.

As an aside: Mike Bibby again? If it didn't mess with the Cavs' main rotation, maybe. If it involves Drew Gooden or Boobie, I would respectfully decline. I would also pay for the boot to kick Ferry in the rump if he accepted.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Browns: True or false?

Sometime after the 49ers game, it hit me. An entire season of Browns football had passed, and I don't think I remember a single public mention of owner Randy Lerner.

No wondering about whether he is considering selling the team. No arguing about his involvement or lack of involvement in the day-to-day matters of the team. No hand-wringing over whether Lerner cares more about the Browns, or his English Premiership club, Aston Villa.

From August through December, Lerner had managed to do something he had never done in any previous football season since assuming control of the Browns: stay out of the spotlight. Having a winning, smoothly-run team will allow most owners to do that.

Without talk of a front office overhaul, philosophical changes in direction or a general feeling of impending doom to command the attention of fans and the media, this Browns offseason promises to be like few in recent memory. Football gets to take center stage as the Browns look, for once, like they're building toward something besides the next coaching change.

This whole concept of "adding pieces" is far different from "scrapping the whole thing and starting over," I realize. But once you get used to it, you'll find you're spending far less money on ulcer medication.

With that in mind, let's begin with a little true-and-false about what the Browns need to do this offseason.

1. The Browns need to sign Albert Haynesworth.

FALSE. It would be nice for the Browns to nab Haynesworth, Tennessee's temperamental defensive tackle who is entering unrestricted free agency. But not for what he's likely going to demand.

The buzz about Haynesworth is largely unwarranted. He was playing for a contract this year, yet the only major statistic that took a jump for him was his sack total, which climbed to six from a previous high of three in 2005, which was also his most productive season for tackles with 36 solos and 16 assists. This year, he netted 32 and eight.

At 6'-6" and 320 pounds, Haynesworth is a monster in the defensive middle, to be sure. But at the age of 26, offering him a deal that will take him to the other side of 30 is also a big risk.

2. The Browns need to trade as high as they can to draft a defensive tackle.
TRUE. If you want a franchise-caliber player to act as the centerpiece of a rebuilt defensive line, it's probably better to get one of your own in the draft, rather than buying someone else's used model.

In a fantasy world, the Browns would figure out a way to trade for Miami's first overall selection and take LSU's Glenn Dorsey, possibly the best interior defensive lineman to enter the NFL since Warren Sapp. But daydreams don't make good draft picks.

A more realistic scenario would involve the Browns trading into the middle of the first round for a shot at USC's Sedrick Ellis. At 6'-1" and a shade over 300 pounds, he's a boulder who scouts say has enough speed to get in the backfield and make plays. With Ellis and Shaun Smith up front, the Browns' D-line sure wouldn't hurt for width. And they might be able to apply a pass rush without blitzing, which would be a nice change of pace from the just-completed season.

3. The Browns need to trade Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn, or risk a team-polarizing quarterback controversy.

FALSE. The only way Derek Anderson stays on this team and doesn't remain the starting quarterback is if he plays his way out of the position next year or gets injured. Anderson, while still possessing some very noticeable flaws as a QB, is still the starter for a 10-win team, and deserves to be the unquestioned starter until he proves he shouldn't be, regardless of how good or bad Quinn looks.

There is no controversy brewing unless Anderson makes it so with his play.

4. However, if the Browns decide to move a QB, it should be Anderson.

TRUE. While the decision to trade Charlie Frye and insert Anderson as the starting QB might have been a watershed moment for the new Browns, Quinn is still the longterm future of the QB position in Cleveland.

As Kellen Winslow alluded to following the win over the 49ers, you don't trade away a first- and second-round pick to move up and draft a guy whose future is longterm clipboard duty. If the Browns trade Quinn, there is virtually no chance they would recoup the value of the picks they surrendered to draft him.

Anderson is the hot commodity right now. He would likely yield more than Quinn at this point, though it's still safe to bet that Quinn has a higher performance ceiling than Anderson. While the Browns are under no pressure to trade Anderson, it appears, given the choice, they should listen to offers for him and guard Quinn as their future starting QB.

5. Todd Grantham is a bum and should be fired.

FALSE. It's amazing what a year can do to a guy's reputation. Last January, Grantham had come within a whisker of taking over Michigan State's football program, and was considered the fast-rising assistant coach who would inevitably take over once Romeo Crennel got himself fired.

This January, Grantham is coming off a season in which the Browns defense was among the league's worst, and the public's perception of Grantham has gone from "defensive mastermind" to "village idiot."

Both assumptions are wrong.

Last season, Grantham benefitted from the emergence of Kamerion Wimbley, D'Qwell Jackson and Leigh Bodden as the Browns defense played well enough to create the illusion that defense would be the team's calling card in the coming years.

This year, Ted Washington ran out of gas, Orpehus Roye officially became old, and the defensive line was woefully thin for most of the year. It created a domino effect as Wimbley was frequently double-teamed and neutralized, no pass rush was evident from the opposite side, and the Browns' linebackers and secondary were frequently forced to play deep coverages to try and give the huffing, puffing pass rushers a chance to get to the quarterback.

Translation: Grantham's playcalling isn't the primary culprit for the Browns' defensive struggles. It's a defense that's too old and too thin at some key positions. The Browns need to correct the personnel issues before making a judgment on Grantham.

6. The Browns need to shore up their receiver corps.

TRUE. Winslow and Braylon Edwards are studs, but the receiver corps is dangerously thin behind them.

Joe Jurevicius has said he will return for at least one more year, but already well into his 30s, you can't count on J.J. for consistent production much longer. Beyond Jurevicius is Josh Cribbs, whose primary responsibility is to the special teams unit, and Tim Carter, who will never be mistaken for Cris Carter.

The Browns need to dip their toes into the free agent market here, or spend a middle-round pick on a receiver -- or maybe two. It might not look it now, but in a year, the Browns' receivers lineup could be Winslow, Edwards and a big load of ???

7. Re-signing Jamal Lewis is the most important item on the Browns' offseason to-do list.

TRUE. In one season, Lewis proved that he fits here and still has gas left in the tank. There are no other options out there that fit the Browns as well as Lewis does, and that might be true for both parties.

Trading up to draft Darren McFadden is pure fantasy, Chargers free agent Michael Turner is a career backup from a warm-weather team, and the rest of the top free agent running backs include Dallas' Marion Barber (not going anywhere) and Julius Jones (always hurt), and Oakland's Justin Fargas (do you really want to sign anyone from Oakland's offense at this point?)

Without Lewis, Cleveland's offense takes a big step backward next year. The Browns should try to squeeze every last ounce of football out of Lewis that they can, before his body wears down for good.