Friday, August 29, 2008

A forgettable August

You'll likely hear a lot of "slate gets wiped clean" talk out of Berea in the next week or so, as the Browns are busy (and maybe literally) licking their wounds after the team's first winless preseason since 1972.

All that matters is the next game on the schedule, you'll hear Romeo Crennel and a number of players say. The season is a grind. You have to take it one week, one quarter, one series, one play at a time. Tres Eric Wedge.

I don't totally buy that. The games don't count, and all will be forgiven if the Browns are sitting pretty with a 3-1 record after Week 4. But until that happens, a tone has been set heading into the regular season, and there are a number of questions that now need to be answered.

A team doesn't go through what the Browns just went through during the exhibition season without lugging some backage toward the season opener.

The offensive line needs to answer for allowing itself to get pushed around against the Giants and Lions. Derek Anderson needs to answer for his role in the first-quarter meltdown in New York. Braylon Edwards needs to go back to elementary school health class, the first aid unit, where you learn that running in stocking feet alongside someone who is running in cleats can cause bodily trauma.

Mel Tucker needs to be viewed less as the man who is destined to save the defense from the evil, power-usurping clutches of Todd Grantham, and more like an unproven rookie defensive coordinator who might need time to grow into his job.

Romeo Crennel needs to answer for the waves of penalties and teamwide lack of competitive fire, particularly in road games. These are issues that have been ongoing, even before Crennel arrived on the scene.

Phil Savage needs to address the dangerously-thin cornerback situation, and if he pulls a Mark Shapiro, deciding that inaction is the best course of action until it becomes utterly apparent that the players and coaches won't be able to right the ship themselves, that should be noted.

The games in the exhibition season aren't for real, but the issues surrounding the team are, and the consequences can be. With training camp over, the exhibition season crumpled up and thrown away and the Cowboys squarely in the crosshairs, here are some other things to chew on over the next week:

The Browns will be much better at home than on the road.

If the Browns want to mount a serious playoff run, last year's 7-1 home record can't be a fluke. But if the preseason is any indication, it appears the Browns will be able to protect their house most weeks.

The overall vibe I got after watching the Jets and Bears games was that if the starters had played the entire four quarters (even the backup-starters of the Chicago game), the Browns probably would have won both games.

Unfortunately, the sample size from the Jets game was too small, as a weather delay shortened the night for the first-teamers. But they scored a touchdown on their first possession, so it's reasonable to think that in a full game, Anderson and Co. could have put up 30 points.

Against Chicago, there was no question that Brady Quinn was the best QB on the field for either team. That's not saying a heck of a lot when your opponent employs Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman, but the inability of Ken Dorsey and the third-stringers to convert two fourth-quarter drives into scores is probably something that would have been less of a problem with Anderson or Quinn under center, Joe Thomas and Eric Steinbach blocking and Cleveland's usual compliment of offensive weapons running routes in the end zone.

Depth is a major concern at most positions.

Before you can build depth, you need to build a competent corps of starters. That's what Savage has had to do, with more than just a few bumps in the road, since taking the Browns' GM job in 2005. Only last year did his labor begin to bear fruit.

The Browns finally have some good starters, capable of representing the team in Hawaii each February. But behind them, Savage still has a lot of work to do.

The injuries of the preseason have exposed a soft underbelly at a lot of positions, namely defensive line, linebacker, safety, cornerback, wide receiver and tight end.

A case could even be made that the depth on the offensive line isn't as good as once thought. The Browns are very thin at the guard positions, and by extension the center spot. That was even before Rex Hadnot suffered a knee injury Thursday. When you get right down to it, the only two players standing between the Browns' O-line and total mediocrity right now are Thomas and Steinbach. Those guys must stay on the field for every game.

Like Phil Dawson? You might fall in love this year.

The last remaining 1999 expansion Brown, Dawson saved the team's bacon often last year with a number of clutch kicks. If this preseason is any indication, Dawson might be in line for a career year. And his teammates might need everything his leg can give them.

Streaky offense plus porous defense equals a lot of close, high-scoring games. If the '08 Browns follow the formula of the '07 Browns, engaging in a lot of 41-38 overtime games, Dawson will be called upon to swallow some ice water and drill the pigskin between the uprights in backwinds, headwinds, crosswinds, swirling winds, in blizzards, on the embarrassingly-bad turf of Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, and in any other potential situation you might be able to concoct.

There is a reason why Browns kickers tend to become legends, at least in Cleveland. Few teams, if any, demand more from their kickers. Dawson should view his career kicking for the Browns as a point of pride, above and beyond simply holding down an NFL job for almost a decade. He could have been some pansy who spent his entire career kicking in a dome for the Minnesota Vikings or Atlanta Falcons. But he's spent his career in one of the few cities where a placekicker can be a tough guy.

Braylon Edwards might be the biggest difference-maker on offense.

No one wants to devalue the importance of Joe Thomas to the offense. After years and years without a premier left tackle, Browns fans are finally seeing how the other half lives. No one wants to take away from Kellen Winslow's ability to fight for yards after the catch like a man possessed. No one wants to tell you that Jamal Lewis isn't one of the most dangerous running backs in the NFL with a lead in the fourth quarter.

But the Browns offense just hasn't been the same without Braylon Edwards.

If you took an informal poll of opposing defensive coordinators and asked them what Browns player they are most worried about containing over the span of four quarters, Derek Anderson might get some votes, along with Winslow and Lewis. But Edwards is the player who probably makes most defensive coordinators wake up in a cold sweat in the week before facing the Browns.

He's Cleveland's best playmaker. He stretches the field, he makes acrobatic, how-did-he-do-that catches and he's extremely difficult to cover one-on-one. If a Browns opponent is up by seven points or fewer, it's always in the back of their collective mind that Cleveland is one Anderson-to-Edwards strike away from tying the game or taking the lead.

That's a valuable weapon to have in the psychological-warfare game. Without Edwards, the Browns offense lacks that quick-strike fear factor, and it just isn't as dynamic. Drives become more methodical and plodding as opposing defenses relax a bit without the acute threat of getting burned by a big play every time Anderson drops back.

Having Donte' Stallworth should help retain some of that big-play threat when Edwards isn't on the field. But Edwards is the real cause for the sweaty palms on the opposing sideline.

Special teams could make or break the season.

... And right now, it's not looking good.

As integral to the Browns' success last year as anything, the Browns' special teams play in 2007 helped lengthen the field for opponents and shorten it for Anderson and the offense.

Josh Cribbs established himself as an elite kick returner last year. His touchdowns received most of the press, but game in and game out, he gave the offense good field position. On the flip side, punter Dave Zastudil and the coverage units -- fronted by the exceptional tackling of Cribbs -- helped keep opposing offenses pinned back.

Now, Cribbs is out until further notice with a high ankle sprain, backup Syndric Steptoe hurt his shoulder in Thursday's loss, and the tackling on punts and kickoffs as a whole was among the biggest disappointments of the preseason.

If the Browns continually lose the field position battle through poor kick returns and lousy tackling, it's going to make scoring harder for the offense, and it's going to make preventing scores harder for the defense.

The special teams, perhaps as much as any other unit or player, needs to step up their collective game in time for Week 1. A return to health by Cribbs would also help greatly. If the special teamers are struggling to make plays, the Browns will struggle to win. It's that simple.

Monday, August 25, 2008

False start

The Browns' preseason finale against the Bears is starting to loom large, at least from a peace of mind standpoint.

After watching the Browns turn in back-to-back preseason performances that ranked somewhere south of west tissue paper on the mental fortitude scale, Thursday is one last chance to prove that this season isn't shaping up to be as bad as we think it might be, that the middle two games of the exhibition season were the products of injuries, sandbagging, avoiding injuries, playing on the road -- anything besides a blatant lack of readiness for the start of the regular season.

Unfortunately, Romeo Crennel probably isn't thinking the same thing. And the bitter truth is, we are going to head into the season opener versus the mighty Cowboys with a heaping helping of trepidation in tow.

The final game of the preseason is all about staying healthy and giving the guys on the roster bubble one last chance to impress the coaches. No matter how much you'd like to see Crennel keep the starters out there for the entire first half, giving them every opportunity to regain their dignity along with their confidence, chances are Crennel will follow final tune-up protocol and play his starters for a couple of series before turning things over to the Ken Dorsey All-Stars on the bench.

Even if Crennel elects to hang in there with his starters for longer than the prescribed amount of game action, so many first-teamers will be in street clothes in an attempt to stay healthy for the season opener, it probably won't make much of a difference.

Any way you slice it, this preseason is a lost preseason. It started foundering the week after the Jets game, when players started arriving on the trainer's table with assorted pulls, tweaks and the occasional spike wound. It sank into the abyss in the first half of the Giants game when the Browns had the kind of Chernobyl mental meltdown we all hoped the team had left in the now-ancient history of the Charlie Frye era.

Whether the Browns find their winning stride between now and the Sept. 7 opener, we're going to have to wait until Sept. 7 to find out. If you're looking for more assurance, you're probably not going to find it until Tony Romo launches his first deep ball to Terrell Owens, with Eric Wright attempting to stick with him stride-for-stride.

In other words, there is probably no way out of this that doesn't involve your heart in your throat. But then again, you didn't become a Cleveland fan for the sense of certainty, did you?

If there is any good news to be mined from what is now a 2008 Browns season facing an uncertain future, it's that this is all happening in the preseason. Because it was going to happen sooner or later.

The Browns are a relatively young team that tasted its first real success last year. Then came the go-for-broke additions of Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers to the defensive line. The Browns went from one of the rising young teams in the NFL to one of the leagues hottest properties. The Browns were lavished with the type of media coverage usually reserved for teams from New York or New England, or future Hall of Fame quarterbacks who can't make up their minds about retirement.

Even with the coaching staff constantly harping on players to not buy into the hype (and we're all confident that's exactly the message Crennel and his staff have been hammering into the players' skulls since the first round of organized team activities in the spring, right?), it's difficult for a young team to not feel at least a slight pang of cockiness, like it has arrived as a force to be reckoned with.

Teams like that are generally humbled at some point, if not humiliated outright. The Browns got a taste of what it's like to be held up as a overrated creation of the hype machine when they were embarrassed on national television by the Giants, complete with snarky comments by ESPN's Tony Kornheiser.

The preseason national telecast was merely a warmup for what awaits the Browns later in the year.

You already know the slate. The Browns will play the Giants on national TV again in October. They will also play the Steelers, Broncos, Bills and Eagles in prime-time national TV games -- and there is also a good chance that a fairly large chunk of the country will watch the Browns-Cowboys game, as they possess two of the largest fan bases in the NFL.

If you thought the sky was falling halfway through the second preseason game, you might want to build a bomb shelter before the regular season starts. What happened against the Giants a little more than a week ago was a minor inconvenience compared to what might await if the Browns turn up lame later this year.

But maybe, just maybe, enduring this time of trial in August will spare the Browns the slings and arrows of being labeled one of the NFL's biggest disappointments once the leaves start turning. If young teams with well-stroked egos are due to receive a blast of cold water sooner or later, it's better to go through it in August with nothing on the line.

The Browns could have breezed through the preseason 4 and 0, thought nothing of it, and some fans would already be setting aside money for Super Bowl tickets. But then the wake-up call would come from back-to-back sucker punches from the Cowboys and Steelers.

One way or another, some team was going to put the Browns on notice that the NFL doesn't hand out elite status like candy to trick-or-treaters. From this vantage point, it's better to get jostled awake by initial turbulence than to go through a demoralizing 1-5 start, or the like. And despite what some of you might think, the Browns still possess the ability to save the first part of their regular season from a preseason hangover.

Now is the time to learn from mistakes. Now is the time to make course adjustments, iron out playbook wrinkles and get that whole gameday-mental-preparation thing straightened out. There is still time. For all of the problems the Browns have exhibited through three exhibition games, the fact remains that the NFL preseason is a monthlong series of mulligans.

Whether the 2008 Browns go into the history books as hype monster or as the real deal will be determined by their win-loss record. But the groundwork for the wins and losses is laid right now.

The good teams don't necessarily flip a switch just before the opening kickoff of the season. The good teams make their corrections in camp and during the exhibition season so they're ready to play when the games begin for real.

It's the bad teams that think they can just flip a switch and everything will be all right come Week 1.

What kind of team do the Browns have? We'll find out on Sept. 7. But not beforehand.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A reality haymaker

What happens when you follow a seemingly-endless string of losing seasons with a winning season, then follow said winning season with a couple key additions to the defensive line?

Unbridled optimism, that's what. Especially in Cleveland, where it doesn't take much -- if anything -- to get fans hyped over the Browns.

Hope is a default setting during the late summer in Cleveland, particularly in a year when the Indians have tanked and the Browns are about the only thing standing between us and a long, cold, dark winter.

So this summer, we focused on all our Browns have to offer us: An exciting offense, an improved defense and prime-time games for the first time in ages. For the first time since Bernie Kosar was sidearming it to Webster Slaughter and Ozzie Newsome, it really felt like the Browns had arrived on the national scene as a force to be reckoned with.

Perhaps our judgment was a bit clouded. Maybe the hope and hype gave us amnesia, as we blocked out all points of criticism that Cleveland football fans -- historically a very knowledgable lot when compared to some others -- are so darn good at identifying and picking apart.

In Monday's first-half embarrassment against the Giants --which albeit ended as a respectable 37-34 loss -- it was all there again. The Browns first-teamers didn't take a step backward from 2007. They took a time trip with Doc and Marty back to 2006. Or 2004, when interim coach Terry Robiskie famously described a blowout loss as "men against boys." Or 2000, when Chris Palmer described the Browns as a "runaway train."

Yeah, it's only preaseason. But it was a preseason game in which most of the starters played the entire first half. More importantly, it was a preseason game against the type of competition the Browns will have to beat if they ever want to play deep into January. And they rolled over and died.

Monday, the Browns' starters were manhandled by starters of the defending Super Bowl champs in every possible way. New York's defensive line pushed the Browns' offensive line around, save for a respectable job done by Joe Thomas on Osi Umenyiora. The Browns' defensive front didn't make much headway against the Giants' offensive line. Football, as many fans around here know, is a domino effect. Lose the game in the trenches, and you'll probably lose it every other way.

The Browns sure did in the first quarter. Ninety-eight yards in penalties, including a couple of dumb-beyond-words interference calls on secondary hopeful Michael Adams, who might not be hopeful for much longer. An erratic-armed Derek Anderson forced passes into ill-advised coverage, and showed the same inability to complete the underneath throws that he did a year ago.

The mistakes didn't stop there. Just to emphasize how completely the wheels had come off, there was a blocked punt for a safety, a free kick return for a touchdown off the safety, and a fumble return for a touchdown. The man carrying the ball on the latter play was Jamal Lewis, who likely would have plowed in for a touchdown himself had he and Anderson managed to complete a fair exchange of the ball.

Domenik Hixon. Remember him. He had three touchdowns for the Giants in the first half. He looked like a Hall of Famer for one night.

The cherry on the sundae? How about Anderson apparently suffering a concussion and possible hand injury when he was driven into the turf on a second-quarter sack. Brady Quinn took over as Anderson went to the locker room with a pained expression on his face. Quinn managed to restore some respectability to the QB position by going 7-for-12 for 124 yards and a touchdown, but it all came welling up from the bottom of a 27-point hole.

Anderson wasn't alone in sick bay. Josh Cribbs also went to the locker room in the first quarter with an ankle injury and was not heard from again. Brodney Pool joined Anderson in the concussion club.

It is all enough to make you need to breathe slowly into a paper bag. If it was a regular season game, you might seriously think about a plastic bag. But even after the safety, the fumble, the missed throws, the penalties and the injuries, we still haven't gotten to the blood-boiling crux of the matter.

The Browns, once again, looked rudderless. They looked ill-prepared mentally from the kickoff on. They were making the same dumb, undisciplined mistakes that have plagued this team since the days of Chris Palmer. The Browns looked as if they were caught by surprise at the level of energy the Giants showed playing in front of their home fans for the first time since winning the Super Bowl.

And when the score got out of hand, they stopped trying, going into mental power-save mode. It took a couple of touchdowns by Syndric Steptoe and Eric Wright (an interception return) to restore some sense that the Browns weren't counting down the minutes until they could board the bus for their hotel.

Too harsh a critique for the second game of the preseason? In this case, I'd argue it's not, only because this is the same team that let the lowly St. Louis Rams jump out to a 14-0 lead last year. This is the same team that couldn't get its act together enough to win a game in Arizona, or when that didn't work, win a hotly-contested game in Cincinnati in the second-to-last week of the season. Either one of those games could have won the Browns the division.

The Browns have enough physical talent to win double-digit games again this year, even against a tough schedule. And it's worth pointing out that, from the outset, the Browns didn't have Braylon Edwards or Shaun Rogers in uniform. But that still doesn't set up an excuse for coming to the stadium mentally unready to compete.

That blame falls on the shoulders of Rob Chudzinski, Mel Tucker, and most of all Romeo Crennel. In much the same fashion as the seeming inability of Eric Wedge teams to perform when the pressure is on, the coach/manager might not take the field and play the game, but when an inability to look prepared and rise to the occasion becomes habitual, it's an honest question to ask where the culpability of the coach comes in.

Anderson takes his share of the blame, too. As he did in the Cincinnati game last December, he once again became flustered when adversity reared its head, and looked noticeably frustrated at the end of several drives. His emotions started snowballing, and he lost any shred of ability take control of the game, as he did so well in the first quarter against the Jets last Thursday. Call it the C.C. Sabathia Factor.

A decent second half marked by solid play from Quinn and Ken Dorsey helped soothe the bruises from the first half, and the Browns actually outscored the Giants 31-14 after the 23-3 debacle of the first quarter. But that shouldn't stop fans and media alike from hanging all kinds of red flags on the circumstances that put the Browns in a 30-3 early second quarter hole.

So much attention has been paid to the strengths and weaknesses of the roster. But perhaps the Browns' real enemy is the mindset that is bouncing around between their collective ears when they take the field each week. It starts with Crennel and the coaches, continues to Anderson and spreads throughout the rest of the team.

Assessing blame isn't the point, though. The point is, this team's mindset heading into games needs to improve, or the '07 season will look like an aberration, and the '08 team will look like the overhyped, overrated media monster that the skeptics say it is.

If Anderson and Co. put this team in a mistake-riddled 30-3 hole against the likes of the Giants during the regular season, they aren't going to rally to make it a three-point game, let alone win it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Getting the point

Over the past five years, many Cavaliers fans became convinced that this team wasn't going to win an NBA title until Danny Ferry acquired an offense-initiating point guard who could allow LeBron James to move without the ball.

If the lack of a true point guard was the chasm that separated the Cavs from the likes of the Spurs and Celtics, consider contention achieved as of Wednesday afternoon, when the Cavs
acquired Maurice "Mo" Williams from the Milwaukee Bucks as part of a six-player, three team trade that also included the as-yet-unnamed Oklahoma City franchise.

Williams is the only player the Cavs received in the trade. The Bucks received Damon Jones and his expiring contract from the Cavs, Oklahoma City point guard Luke Ridnour and OKC forward Adrian Griffin. Oklahoma City received Joe Smith's expiring contract from the Cavs and Desmond Mason from the Bucks.

It's actually a coming-home party of sorts for Mason, in more ways than one. He started his career with the Seattle Sonics and will now be reunited with the franchise in their new city. Mason also played for the Hornets while the franchise temporarily played home games in Oklahoma City from 2005-07.

Before we focus on what the Cavs got in Williams, let's look at what they lost in Jones and Smith.

Jones was signed in 2005 to be the three-point sniper off the bench, but never really fit into the offense in Cleveland the way he did in Miami. His three years with the Cavs were marked by inconsistent shooting and an attitude that seemed to change with the prevailing winds, or with his minutes-per-game average.

There is reason to believe he and Mike Brown were not on the best of terms this past season, which wouldn't be a surprise given Jones' outspoken nature. Combine that with the fact that Jones became a redundant player when Daniel Gibson emerged as the team's primary three-point sniper, and you had an unhappy, mismatched puzzle piece of a player. His days in Cleveland had been numbered for quite some time. I had a hard time believing the Cavs would open training camp with Jones still on the roster.

The loss of Smith hurts a bit more. He was a solid contributor off the bench for the Cavs' 13-game playoff run this past spring. While Ben Wallace and Zydrunas Ilgauskas nursed their bodies along through assorted injuries, it was Smith who provided consistent scoring and rebounding from the low post positions.

Smith is already on the wrong side of 30 and probably won't improve beyond what he did for the Cavs this spring, so perhaps the Cavs are trading him at the right time. His departure will undoubtedly open the door for first-round pick J.J. Hickson and second-round pick Darnell Jackson to win minutes at the season's outset. But I'd honestly still feel better if the Cavs signed another veteran big man before the season starts, someone who can absorb 20 minutes a night if need be.

Asking Hickson or Jackson to step in and shoulder big minutes right away might work out just fine, but it's a gamble to rely on two rookies so heavily, especially when you consider that Hickson won't even turn 20 until September.

Now for the main course. Mo Williams: A player who, by the simple act of putting on a Cavs uniform, will become the best point guard the franchise has seen since Andre Miller -- or maybe even Terrell Brandon.

Like a lot of NBA ball-handlers, Williams doens't fit the often-referenced "pure point guard." He's not a pass-first assist machine who will exist solely to pump up LeBron's nightly stat line. But that doesn't make him less valuable. In fact, Williams might be more valuable to the Cavs than a pass-first point guard.

Williams is a scorer with a good enough handle to play the point guard position. Not to play fast and loose with invoking the name of Larry Hughes, but Williams is everything the Cavs wanted Hughes to be. Williams can create his own shot and do it often, a quality that has been almost completely absent from the players who have surrounded LeBron to this point.

The Cavs certainly needed a point guard who can play pitch-and-catch with LeBron, passing to LeBron while he is cutting to the basket and completely unstoppable. But as much as they needed a point guard like that, perhaps even more so, they needed a second player who could create off the dribble and serve as an ignition switch for the offense.

Williams can do that. He did so to the tune of 17.2 points and 6.3 assists last season. If Williams can continue to put up those kinds of numbers, the days of stand-and-dribble offense as a team philosophy should be a thing of the past.

Williams might not be in the uppermost echelon of NBA point guards. He's not quite in the class of Chris Paul, Steve Nash or Deron Williams. But he's in the class right behind them, on a short list with Jose Calderon, Gilbert Arenas and an aging Chauncey Billups as an elite point guard in the Eastern Conference.

Williams isn't Michael Redd, Elton Brand or another wow-factor acquisition like many fans were hoping for this summer. But make no mistake about it, his acqusition is a significant one, an addition that has the chance to vault the Cavs back into NBA Finals contention next spring.

But as with any major addition, Williams does come with a price. His hefty contract will weigh on the Cavs' books for up to the next half-decade. He is signed for up to five more years and a total of about $43 million. That includes an $8.5 million player option for the 2012-13 season. But the upside is, if LeBron develops good chemistry with Williams, he knows he'll be here for a while.

Maybe Williams' presence won't influence whether LeBron stays with or leaves the Cavs. But anytime you can add a quality player to his supporting cast, it probably can't hurt your chances if you're Ferry.

What matters right now is that when LeBron steps off the return flight from China in a couple of weeks, he'll come back to a Cavs team that is noticeably improved over the team he last saw. Williams isn't a cure-all, but if wins and losses end up being the ultimate deciding factor as to LeBron's future home team, acquiring Williams should be a step in the right direction.

P.S. I just wanted to draw some additional attention to the byline in the linked column. After nearly two months, Brian Windhorst is out of the hospital and back on the Cavs beat for the Akron Beacon Journal. On behalf of Cavs fans everywhere, welcome back, Brian. We missed you.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

What we've learned so far

The Browns are in the midst of a 10-day layoff between exhibition games following Thursday's storm-delayed 24-20 loss to the Jets.

Even taking into account the erratic nature of preseason scheduling, going a week and a half between games is stretching the amount of time a team should reasonably be laid off from action as they are trying to nail down a routine. By the time the Browns roll into East Rutherford, N.J. next Monday to take on the Super Bowl champion Giants, it will be like starting the preseason all over again.

On the positive side, the time off does give the Browns players and coaches plenty of time to digest what happened in the exhibition opener. And there is plenty to digest.

Anyone who tries to find deep meaning in the goings-on of a Week 1 exhibition game is treading way too far into overanalysis. But single-game performances can signal the beginnings of trends, so with an eye toward the immediate future, here are a few items to flag from Thursday's loss.

1. Derek Anderson might be even better this year.

What everyone will remember from Thursday's touchdown drive was the acrobatic one-armed scoring catch by Braylon Edwards. But it was Anderson's masterful piloting of the offense that made the catch possible.

Anderson relied almost exclusively on short throws -- his well-documented weakness last year -- and an 11-yard burst from Jamal Lewis to put the Browns in the end zone before the first drop fell from the lightning storm that ended up delaying the game for an hour in the first quarter.

Anderson became known for his big arm and his big play capability last year. But the efficiency with which he directed the TD drive shows a potential maturation of Anderson with regard to his game-directing skills. Anderson took nine plays and 4:48 to drive the Browns 62 yards on 4-of-5 completions. 

Great quarterbacks might not all have great arms, but they all have the ability to control the pace of the game when on the field. Anderson still has some proving to do in the greatness department, but if he matures from thrower to pitcher, to use a baseball term, he's going to be a really good one.

2. However, Brady Quinn will continue to push Anderson.

When the rains let up and the game resumed with a little over four minutes to play in the first quarter, Quinn stepped onto the field and continued to look like a guy who would probably be given a shot to start by more than a few other NFL teams.

Quinn finished his stint under center 13-of-17 with one pick on a tipped pass. He squirmed out of a would-be sack for an 11-yard gain and a first down that kept a touchdown drive alive in the second quarter. 

Quinn and the second team offense put 10 points on the board on two scoring drives. We knew the Browns have some good starters. If the backups can play some ball, the number of different looks Rob Chudzinski can throw at the opposing defense gets multiplied. 

3. I am starting to really like Jason Wright.

Seven rushes on 17 yards doesn't seem like anything great, but even if Wright never becomes a featured back in the NFL, he still has a skill set that can help the Browns win games.

Most backup running backs want to show off whatever speed/strength/agility they have in an effort to attract more carries. Especially if they're young. It's not uncommon to see an unseasoned backup rusher spend his preseason carries attempting to plow into gnat-sized holes, run people over or do some Barry Sanders break dancing in an effort to show that they do, in fact, have mad skills.

Wright is different. Yes, he has a few years of experience over some of the greenhorns fresh off the bus from college. But this is still a guy who has never had a serious look as a starter. With a 100,000-mile Jamal Lewis ahead of him on the depth chart, you could excuse Wright if he tried to make things happen in an effort to impress Romeo Crennel.

Instead, Wright uses his Northwestern-groomed smarts to pick apart plays while they're happening, allowing the play to develop in front of him before choosing his point of attack. You might call it a long-winded euphemism for "too slow," but I'd argue that it takes a great deal of self-discipline for the guy carrying the ball to play that way.

Focus on Wright when he is carrying the ball. He doesn't make a lot of stupid mistakes. Like a smart baserunner who doesn't get himself out, Wright seldom runs himself into lost yardage. That's not athletic talent. That's athletic intelligence.

4. Josh Cribbs' new best friend should be Syndric Steptoe.

If Cribbs wants a raise, the only way he's going to get it is to become a consistent producer with the offense. The only way he's going to get the chance to produce with the offense is if he doesn't have to focus solely on special teams. The only way that's probably going to happen is if someone else can step up and take a portion of the kick returning duties off Cribbs' plate.

I give you Syndric Steptoe. The late-round pick from Arizona in 2007 is getting a chance to make the team as a special-teams contributor, which is the reason he was drafted.

Steptoe finished Thursday with four returns -- two punts and two kickoffs. His long return was 42 yards on a kickoff. A very small sample size, to be sure, but if anyone should be rooting for Steptoe's coming-out party to occur in 2008, it should be Cribbs, who desperately wants to graduate from special-teams stud to bona fide NFL receiver.

5. The beauty of the defense is only skin-deep.

Every Browns fan is hyped over the new-look defensive line, hyped over what the presence of Shaun Rogers is going to mean for Cameron Wimbley's sack total, even hyped over the super-squirt corner tandem of Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald.

Hype away on those guys, because what's coming behind them is not pretty.

It takes a while to build depth on a football team. The past few offseasons, Phil Savage has concentrated on adding talent and depth to the offense, and the Browns are now bearing the fruit of his labor with a talented, deep, dynamic offense.

The defense is a year or two behind the offense. The starting 11 is noticeably better than last year with the additions of Rogers and Corey Williams to the line. But behind the starters is a giant avalanche of question marks, and it's starting to look like the answers to those questions will be negative.

Early marks on the guys who are slated to provide the depth for the Browns' defense and special teams are not good. It was those units that allows the Jets' offensive backups (hardly high on the NFL food chain themselves) to rally and win Thursday with big plays. 

If your third team defense gets out-executed by the opponent's third team offense, fine. That's how young players learn. But when your defense surrenders a 70-yard touchdown bomb from Brett Ratliff to David Clowney, then your special teams surrenders a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown minutes later, that's not getting outmaneuvered. That's getting burned. 

If the Browns' defensive starters start showing up in braces and casts en masse, be afraid. Be very afraid. It's only August, and I can already see that defense will have to be the first and second priorities for Savage in the 2009 draft.

6. But, hey, he'll still make one heck of a QB coach.

A lot of Browns fans have drawn parallels between Bernie Kosar and Ken Dorsey. Like Kosar, Dorsey is a Miami of Florida graduate who seems to be of above-average intelligence. Like Kosar, he seems to command a huddle well and seems to be good at improvising in the pocket.

But here's a crucial difference between Kosar and Dorsey: If Kosar were to be faced with a first-and-goal at the five yard line with less than a minute to play and a chance to win the game, that ball is going in the end zone (surprise appearances by Earnest Byner and Jeremiah Castille excluded).

If Kosar had four shots to put the ball in the end zone from five yards out, he'd probably have found a way to do it most times. Dorsey, on the other hand, couldn't seem to keep his passes away from the hands of Jet defenders. Four passes, four incompletions.

It shouldn't irritate me this much that a third-string quarterback couldn't punch the ball into the end zone with the game on the line. But it does. 

Please stay healthy, Derek and Brady. If Dorsey is ever forced to take snaps in a regular season game, we're screwed.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Spotlight lust

LeBron James has a secret. It’s a secret that dwarfs the great mysteries of the cosmos. It’s a secret that overshadows matters of national security, the circumstances surrounding the JFK assassination, and – yes – even how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop.

It’s absolutely killing you that you don’t know it. And that’s just the way he likes it.

LeBron is many things: A basketball great, a global icon-in-training, a business mogul, philanthropist and all-around solid family guy. But like so many celebrities who are both attracted and repelled by the fame lavished upon them, LeBron also wants to be the center of attention when it suits him.

He likes it when people talk about him, when volumes and volumes of written words are spent exhaustively analyzing his every syllable and gesture for layers of meaning.

Right now, LeBron is without a professional championship ring. He hasn’t yet financed or produced a multi-platinum record or an Oscar-nominated movie. He doesn’t have the corner office on the 99th floor of the building that is to house his business empire. All those things – or most of them – will likely find him at some point.

Right now, what gets people gossiping about LeBron James is where he’s going to play in the fall of 2010, the season after he can opt out of his contract with the Cavs.

If the kinetic energy produced by the unrelenting mass-hand wringing over his future address could be converted into electricity and harnessed, it could probably light Canal Park in Akron for an entire season of Aeros baseball.

LeBron has been accused of subscribing to the Michael Jordan theory of bland, paint-by-number interview quotes, lest he say something even remotely controversial and alienate potential customers for the companies he endorses. That’s true, to a point. But unlike Jordan, who grew into his fame over the course of his early career, LeBron was brought up from his formative years to handle fame.

During his playing days, Jordan largely stayed away from controversy when he opened his mouth. LeBron uses controversy as a tool to manipulate fans and media and increase his profile. It’s actually quite an intelligent approach when done correctly. Brett Favre is trying to do something similar with his drama-queen approach to retirement and reinstatement, and he’s starting to look quite silly. LeBron, by contrast, has masterfully worked fans and media in Cleveland, New York and apparently Greece into a lather over what team he’ll play for in two years.

When LeBron conducted his annual charity bike-a-thon in Akron earlier this summer, he gushed about how he loves Akron, how he has such a great relationship with the Cavs organization and how he loves playing for his home-region team. Our Cleveland hearts swelled with pride, and a number of us probably wanted to hand-deliver a copy of LeBron's quotes to Stephen A. Smith and his big-city ilk who have spent the past five years insisting that LeBron is leaving Cleveland the first chance (OK, how about the second chance?) that he gets.

But then a few weeks later, he was in New York as Team USA gathered to being preparations for the Olympics. He wasn’t in Ohio anymore, and he didn’t try to act like it. Different city, different face, and maybe different loyalties.

The eager beavers in the New York and national media wanted a story, and LBJ did not disappoint. His favorite city in the whole wide world? New York, of course. He also threw in Dallas (home of his beloved Cowboys), Washington (a good American loves his nation’s capital, right?) and Los Angeles (presumably the future location of LBJ Studios, I’m guessing). His hometown of Akron came in a paltry fifth on the Bron Scale, and Cleveland was nowhere to be found.

Gentlemen, start your laptops. "LBJ? Oh, he is definitely, 900 percent certain, coming to the Knicks or the Nets in 2010. Cleveland, it’s nothing personal. Your city just can’t hold a living god. That’s New York’s job. Hey, we still love that Rock Hall. That has a lot of good stuff, like Jim Morrison’s toothpicks or whatever. And we think Drew Carey is awesome. You guys from Cleveland worship him or something, right? And hey, that Brady Sizemore is one heck of a tight end! So you still have something to root for, see?"

LeBron rode that wave right into this week, when a little birdie let it be known to an ESPN writer that LeBron might ditch the NBA altogether for the right price once his contract with the Cavs has expired.

Of course, the asking price was downright outlandish, according to the article penned by ESPN’s Chris Broussard: $50 million per year. But if the Knicks, Nets and whoever else can clear the decks of salary cap space to try and land LeBron in two years, why couldn’t we assume that a filthy rich European team might not stash cash away to make a run at LeBron? Even if you think the idea is preposterous, I would reason that you should never underestimate your opponents.

This summer, European basketball teams took a large step forward in proving that they have the resources and money to be more than just a safety net for players not quite good enough to make a living in the NBA. Hawks restricted free agent Josh Childress signed a three-year, $20 million deal with Olympiacos, an Athens-based Euroleague club. Dynamo Moscow lured former Hornet and Net Bostjan Nachbar away from the NBA, and most recently, Virtus Bologna signed Earl Boykins.

The Childress deal is what really caused waves in NBA circles. Childress was sought after by NBA teams, but Childress spurned the NBA with its salary cap restrictions to go to Greece and play for a team outside of the NBA’s umbrella. As the most successful European teams, such as Olympiacos, continue to gain financial clout, the fact that they aren’t bound by the NBA’s financial rules will become of increasing importance. That fact probably wasn’t lost on LeBron.

No one outside of LeBron’s inner circle knows whether the anonymous source that leaked LeBron’s supposed interest to Broussard was truly relaying LeBron’s interest, or acting alone. But, judging by how LeBron carefully controls his image, it would be hard to imagine him tolerating someone putting false words in his mouth for all to hear.

Is LeBron headed to Greece, or Russia, or Italy? Probably not. But the seed is planted in your head, and now you’re wondering. Just like you’re wondering if he’ll bolt for Manhattan or Brooklyn. Or maybe two weeks in China will turn LBJ on to Asian basketball.

If the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association let it be known that they were willing to make LeBron the richest athlete on Earth, I’m sure he’d be listening. And I’m guessing any Chinese team that wanted LeBron would probably have the full faith and backing of the government of the People’s Republic of China.

In a global economy where money is flowing into China like water, maybe that idea isn’t so far-fetched. It probably will be a lot less far-fetched in five or 10 years.

Heck, if LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can conspire to land in New York together, as former Plain Dealer Cavs reporter Branson Wright speculated in an article several years ago, why couldn’t LeBron, Wade and Bosh conspire to hook up with Yao Ming in two years and turn China into a basketball powerhouse?

LeBron couldn’t. He wouldn’t. But then again…

With LeBron, those three ellipses are worth a thousand words. And he loves it.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Better lucky than good

Sometimes, it is said, luck is in the numbers.

The Browns have two potential starting quarterbacks. Coincidentally, adding Derek Anderson's jersey No. 3 to Brady Quinn's No. 10 brings you unlucky 13. Subtract Anderson from Quinn, and you end up with lucky 7.

If you wanted to read into the numerical significance more deeply, perhaps that's a harbinger of the decision GM Phil Savage will have to make in the next year or so. It will likely bring bad luck to try and make the Anderson-Quinn coexistence last too long. And just maybe, it will bring the best luck to bet that Savage will at some point have to subtract Anderson from the team in favor of Quinn. Or at least, that's what a lot of fans are thinking.

That's all speculation. What we do know is that right now, if you're a Cleveland Browns quarterback, it's better to be lucky than good.

Anderson represents luck. That's not to say that he doesn't have a nicely-sized helping of talent, but his present status as one of the league's rising young QBs is due mostly to a few chance happenings.

A lost-in-the-shuffle signal-caller from an Oregon State program largely unrecognized by the rest of the nation, the former sixth-round pick of the Ravens was plucked off Baltimore's practice squad by Savage, the former Baltimore scouting head who was in his first year running Cleveland's roster.

Had it been a team with an established quarterback already under center, Anderson might have stayed in the background. But the Browns were in the midst of shuffling through a long string of has-beens and never-will-be's at QB. When Anderson arrived, his teammates were Charlie Frye and Trent Dilfer. Dilfer was gone before the '06 season began, and by the time Anderson started his first NFL game late in the '06 season, it was becoming apparent that Frye possessed neither the arm nor the quickness to succeed as a starting NFL quarterback. The door was still open for Anderson, but due to an strong-but-erratic arm, he totally seized the opportunity.

That's when Brady Quinn entered picture. Quinn represents good. The jury is still out on how good, but he is an NFL blueblood, groomed at Notre Dame under QB guru Charlie Weis for professional greatness.

The Browns traded up on draft day in 2007 to get Quinn in the first round. He was expected to arrive in Cleveland as the franchise savior, running Anderson and the era of bargain-basement QBs out of town.

But then, Anderson was the beneficiary of yet another series of lucky breaks. Quinn held out of the first part of training camp as a rookie, putting him behind the curve in learning the playbook. Anderson didn't play well in the '07 preseason, but neither did Frye, and even when Frye was by default named the starter at the outset of last season, Anderson was still front-of-mind for the Browns' decision-makers.

Then came the opening week debacle against the Steelers. The 34-7 loss got Frye traded to Seattle, and Anderson was installed as the starting QB only because Romeo Crennel thought Quinn wasn't ready.

Anderson was the one who set up shop behind the Browns' rebuilt offensive line, and the rest is history. A 10-6 record and a Pro Bowl appearance for Anderson. Quinn didn't take his first official NFL snaps until the final week of the season against San Francisco.

Despite his success, Anderson was welcomed by fans as something less than a conquering hero after the season. His four interceptions against Cincinnati in Week 16 directly caused the Browns to miss the playoffs. He was still viewed by many in the stands and the press box as too much of a gunslinger, trying to solve problems with his arm instead of his mind, throwing ill-advised passes into coverage and potentially leading his receivers into violent collisions with defensive backs with his high throws.

Anderson is the test model, the beta-version software with bugs still in the system. Quinn will be the finished product with all the tools for stardom. We are still convinced of that in most circles.

But each time we wait for Quinn to become the cream that rises to the top, Anderson emerges as the better QB -- as he has throughout his career. Somehow, some way, Anderson does enough to stick around. When he needed to find a way to stick around in the NFL, he did it. Now that he needs to do enough to hold onto his starting job, he appears to be doing it.

It's Anderson who is developing timing with Braylon Edwards and Donte' Stallworth while Quinn captains the second team. It's Anderson who is winning over his receivers with his vertical passing game while Quinn remains inconsistent throwing deep balls.

While the fans believe in the Fighting Irish legend of Brady Quinn, the guys who don the orange helmets on Sundays seems to believe in the here-and-now of Derek Anderson. The more we wait for that to change, the more entrenched Anderson seems to become.

There is no doubt who would win a public popularity contest between Anderson and Quinn. A quick stroll through your area mall will reveal dozens and dozens of brown and white No. 10 Quinn jerseys for sale, right alongside those of Edwards, Kellen Winslow, Joe Thomas and Joe Jurevicius. Conspicuously absent in many cases are Anderson No. 3 tops for sale.

There aren't many NFL cities, particularly NFL cities that have had the recent history of losing Cleveland has had, where the local team's Pro Bowl starting QB would be dismissed with a general wave of the hand. But that's how convinced we've become that Anderson is merely the seat-warmer in advance of Quinn's coronation.

But Lady Luck keeps smiling on Anderson, the man who has found ways to take advantage of the fortune he has encountered. If it's better to be lucky than good, Anderson might hold onto his starting job a lot longer than we think he will.