Monday, October 27, 2008

The ring's the thing

Some win it quickly. Magic Johnson won his first as a rookie, as did Bill Russell. Larry Bird won it in his sophomore season.

Some take a bit more time. Michael Jordan won it in his seventh season. Shaquille O'Neal and Wilt Chamberlain in their eighth.

Some take the balance of their careers. Kevin Garnett had to wait until his 13th season. Clyde Drexler until his 12th.

But all of them have hoisted the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy.

For LeBron James, an NBA world championship is perhaps the only major accomplishment -- other than winning the NBA MVP award -- that the 23-year-old has yet to achieve.

Entering his sixth season, LeBron has won a scoring title, an Olympic gold medal, a conference title and, somewhere way back in the yellowing pages of history, the 2004 Rookie of the Year award.

It's been repeated again and again, but it bears yet another mention: LeBron was the most-hyped, most-ballyhooed basketball player in history at age 18. A cynical public and skeptical media waited for him to fall flat on his face on the biggest stages, to be exposed as an overblown creation of the spotlight. Yet he not only lived up to the hype, he has exceeded it.

Those among us who were waiting for him to turn into Darius Miles would have been amazed if he ended up as good as 2003 NBA Draft classmate Carmelo Anthony, who led Syracuse to a national title in his one year of college ball. Anthony is really good. LeBron is even better. Along with perhaps only Kobe Bryant, he is the talent that could define this generation of professional basketball.

But virtually all great players have the thing LeBron doesn't have yet. They have rings. And as long as LeBron remains beneath the NBA's summit, his equation of greatness won't be total.

It is possible to not win a ring and still be viewed as great. John Stockton and Karl Malone never won an NBA title. Dan Marino never won a Super Bowl and Ted Williams never won a World Series. They're all legends in their sports. But the list of all-time greats without at least one title to their credit is short. Even then, if you think of Malone, Marino, Alex Rodriguez, what is the first thought that normally comes to mind?

"Great? sure. But they've never won the big one."

What does it all mean? As much as we want LeBron to win a title for the city of Cleveland and his hometown of Akron, as much as we want him to live up to his status of "The Chosen One" and end our nearly half-century title drought, this is as much a personal quest for LeBron as it is a quest to win a championship for the region.

As The Plain Dealer's Brian Windhorst wrote on Sunday, in addition to LeBron's place in history, there are very real financial ramifications for LeBron if he remains ringless for the balance of his career.

No matter if he plays in Cleveland, New York, Los Angeles, Memphis or anywhere else, his jersey, and the apparel that carries his name and logo, will continue to lag in sales behind Bryant, Garnett and others who have won rings.

LeBron has stated that he wants to become a global icon. No matter how much business savvy he has, how many tips he gets from investment guru Warren Buffett, how many individual accolades he collects on the basketball court, the most important ingredient will always be that NBA world championship -- actually, multiple championships if LeBron wants to get in on the conversation for greatest player ever.

Without rings, his talent will be admired, but his image will never be totally embraced outside of Ohio.

But that could all change this year. This season could be the first season of the rest of LeBron's career. Because this is the first year of the LeBron Era that the Cavaliers have a team capable of winning an NBA title.

It would be too harsh to call the Cavs' 2007 NBA Finals appearance a fluke, but it was the product of LeBron's unreal finish to Game 5 against Detroit, Daniel Gibson's Game 6 outburst and the Pistons' regression from title contender to also-ran. It was an upset, and the Spurs proved that in no uncertain terms by demolishing the Cavs in the Finals.

This year, if the Cavs overcome Boston, Detroit, Orlando and whoever else the East throws at them, and advances to their second NBA Finals in three years, it won't be a fluke. And if it's an upset, it will be a mild one.

As it stands, this Cavs team has the talent to beat any team in the East in a playoff series, and might be able to handle the West champ in the Finals depending on the circumstances and who has homecourt advantage. If Danny Ferry can turn Wally Szczerbiak's expiring deal into a meaningful acquisition before the trade deadline in February, the Cavs might even become title favorites.

The pieces are in place now more than they've ever been. For a player with the superlative skills of LeBron, a lack of a supporting cast is no longer a barrier to hardware. It all comes down to desire, how much effort LeBron wants to give through 82 regular season games to set up a high playoff seed and subsequent title run. If LeBron is motivated and can motivate his teammates, and if everyone stays mostly healthy, this might be the best chance Cleveland has had for a title since the Indians of the mid-'90s.

This might also be the year that LeBron turns the corner toward true greatness. The kind that is measured in gold.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Taking sides

Unless you've been living in isolation, you know a fracture is threatening to end the Browns season before the first flake of snow hits the ground.

It's the worst kind of fracture. It can't be healed with a cast or a splint. This fracture is between Phil Savage and Kellen Winslow, and it's become a full-blown sideshow upstaging the team's preparation for Sunday's game in Jacksonville, a game the Browns desperately need to win.

To summarize, this all started immediately after the Browns' 14-11 loss to the Redskins last Sunday. In an interview with The Plain Dealer, Winslow accused the Browns of attempting to hide his second staph infection from public view to protect the organization's reputation. He expressed dismay that Savage did not call him during his stay in the hospital the week previous, and said he felt that the Browns were treating him like a "piece of meat."

Romeo Crennel tried to talk Winslow into a retraction on the flight back to Cleveland, but Winslow maintained a hardline stance, drawing a one-game suspension from Browns management. The suspension was lifted late Saturday, but Winslow still reportedly won't play Sunday.

In one sequence of events, we sampled a buffet of embarrassment that seems to summarize the train wreck that has been the Cleveland Browns over the past four years: Winslow, a player with a long history of maturity problems (and apparent anger issues) spouting off to the media about a problem that should have been handled internally; yet another failed attempt by Crennel to rein in one of his players; a long-simmering feud between Savage and Winslow finally boiling over in front of a national audience, all wrapped in the package of the ongoing staph infection saga.

This will all likely end with Winslow's departure from the team over the coming offseason. With Steve Heiden, Darnell Dinkins and Martin Rucker, the Browns are deep at the tight end position, so Savage probably feels like he doesn't need to put up with Winslow, whose deficiencies as a blocker and deterioriating knees will likely render him an oversized possession receiver in the next three-to-five years.

The fans and media, of course, are taking sides in this battle. But as frequently occurs in the court of public opinion, the verdicts handed out have a lot to do with the direction of the prevailing winds.

Coming off a disappointing loss in Washington that dropped the Browns to 2-4, putting a highly-anticipated season on the brink of irrelevance, fans are quick to spew their venom at Savage. It was Savage, the overrated GM, who got the Browns into this mess with his spotty drafts, blind loyalty to Crennel and curious obsession with Derek Anderson. It is Savage who can't control the Browns' staph epidemic, and now he's trying to sweep it under the rug. It's Savage who just took a machete to his nasal cartilage to spite his face, suspending arguably his best offensive player for a pivotal game, on the road, against a playoff-caliber team.

Right now, Winslow is telling it like it is, shining some much-needed light into the dark, mold-encrusted corners of the Browns organization, and taking one on the chin from the Browns' cloak-and-dagger inner sanctum for doing so.

But if the Browns win in Jacksonville, the song might change just a little bit. If Anderson, deprived of one of his crutches, is forced to spread the ball around to five or six different receivers, resulting in a balanced attack and three offensive touchdowns in a repeat of the Giants game, the "Down With Savage!" movement might lose some steam. The new slogan for the Ravens rematch will be "Kellen Who?"

Ten different people might give you 10 different takes on the Savage-Winslow rift, but this much can be safely assumed: If the Browns were 4-2, the majority of the fan base would be telling Kellen to shut up, put the team first and get to the playoffs. Savage, the playoff team architect, would be the sympathetic figure far more than he is right now.

In the end, blame always boils down to wins and losses. Fans change. The media changes. Winslow and Savage really don't. Winslow is always going to have a large dose of hotheadedness running through his veins. It's part of what makes him such a fierce competitor at football. But it also makes him prone to spouting off when he's unhappy.

When Winslow publicly stated a desire for a new contract just before the Pro Bowl in February, he was all but laughed off by the Northeast Ohio masses. Coming off a 10-6 season, when things were finally going well for the Browns, the tight end who nearly killed himself in a motorcycle crash, the tight end who should be grateful for even having an NFL career, was putting his interests ahead of the team. It looked like an obscenely selfish act.

Now that the Browns are back to swimming among the league's bottom-feeders, Savage looks like the selfish one in light of Winslow's comments. Savage looks like the one who is trying to salvage his own reputation by allegedly telling Winslow to clam up about staph.

If Savage did relay such a message to Winslow, that does look suspicious. Winslow has a right to his opinion, even if it's not popular. If he truly believes something needs to be said about the way the Browns are handling players with staph infections, and he's willing to take the heat for speaking out against his employer, the Bill of Rights guarantees him that freedom.

But beyond that, I find it hard to sympathize with Winslow. I find it hard to believe that Winslow was broken up that he didn't receive a call from Savage while in the hospital, especially since he received a call from his direct boss, Romeo Crennel.

I find it hard to side with a guy who accuses his superiors of treating him like a piece of meat. I was willing to go along with what Winslow had to say, but he lost me at that point. The Browns hired their offensive coordinator in part because of his long-standing relationship with Winslow. He's been at or among the leaders in tight end receptions for the past two years. All this after a broken leg and the aforementioned crotch rocket stunt crash claimed the first two years of his career.

On the "Ridiculous Comment By A Professional Athlete In Need Of Some Perspective" scale, Winslow's remark ranks right up there with Latrell Sprewell turning down the Minnesota Timberwolves' multimillion-dollar offer by saying "I have a family to feed."

I do, however, find it completely believable that Winslow's outburst has a lot to do with his perception that he's being phased out by the Browns. There has probably been some simmering animosity between Savage and Winslow dating to his motorcycle crash, but while we as fans dismissed Winslow's contract demands with little more than a wave of the arm, Savage treated it like a warning shot over the bow.

When Savage dealt an '09 draft pick to move up and select Rucker out of Missouri several months later, it was Savage's way of returning fire, of telling Winslow that the organization wouldn't grind to a halt if he decided to hold out.

Winslow didn't hold out and was one of the few positives in an otherwise dismal preseason for the Browns. But then came the stunner against the Giants earlier this month with Winslow on the shelf. As the Browns cruised to a massive upset with Heiden and Dinkins playing significant roles, Winslow might have felt expendable for the first time in a long time.

Winslow's gamble that the Browns' offense wouldn't be effective without him blew up in his face, and he didn't like it. So when he ended up in the hospital with another staph infection, adding injury to insult, he rushed his comeback, had an ineffective game against the Redskins, then lashed out, leading to this past week's circus.

And that's where we stand. A relationship between the general manager and one of his star players that is likely damaged beyond repair. A tumultuous tenure for Winslow in Cleveland appears headed for a tumultuous end in the near future.

In the end, who takes the hero role and villain role in the history books will depend upon whether the Browns win or lose. For his sake, Savage had better hope he's doing the right thing by phasing Winslow out of the Browns' future.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Rebounding from depression

"I am an island."

This is what depression does to you.

Depression isolates you. No matter what kind of support system you have in place, how many family members and friends would do anything to help you, the feeling of isolation, the feeling that no one on Earth understands you, understands your problems, that's the constant, bitter taste in your mouth. You feel like you're alone. Sometimes you wonder if the fight's even worth fighting.

At least that's the way it has been for me.

I'm 29, and I've dealt with depression and anxiety in many forms since as far back as I can remember. So when Cavs guard Delonte West took the bold step of sitting down in front of reporters and coming clean about why he had been absent from the team for nearly two weeks, I figured it was time for me to do the same.

I've never been diagnosed as clinically depressed. I've never had my specific set of symptoms neatly packaged into a condition with a name. As I've come to realize over the young-adult years of my life, I'm like a lot of people dealing with emotional issues. That is to say, I have a mish-mash of symptoms, some of which come and go, some of them which might need treatment, some of which might simply be traits of my personality.

Depression is messy and confusing like that. You don't know what part of yourself to fight, and what part to accept. If you're quiet and tend to keep to yourself in large social gatherings, is it a symptom, or just the way you are? After all, the world is full of people who exist all across the personality spectrum. Some are outgoing and jovial. Some are introverted. Just because you're quiet and don't work the room like a politician doesn't necessarily mean there is something wrong with you.

Still, when you feel like the only introvert in a room of outgoing extroverts who are being outgoing and extroverted toward each other, and ignoring you because you're not interacting like they are, it just makes you feel all the more isolated. Which makes you feel even more worthless, which makes you feel even more depressed. It becomes a snowball effect.

The self-loathing and feeling of worthlessness leads to anger. You might not even realize that's what's triggering your anger, but it literally feels like a weight making your head sink and shoulders slump, pulling down your eyebrows and the corners of your mouth.

For Delonte, his anger manifested itself in a verbal altercation he had with a high-school referee who was officiating a Cavs intrasquad scrimmage several weeks ago. Whether the ref deserved Delonte's anger is not the point -- it's that whatever occurred between the ref and Delonte served as a trigger for Delonte to act out.

It's perhaps one of the least-recognized symptoms of depression among the general population. The popular image of depression is a person who is lethargic, is frequently sad, and maybe has thoughts of self-harm or suicide in extreme cases. But depression affects your temper.

Anger affects different people in different ways. Delonte took it out on someone else. I quietly seethed at perceived slights -- someone passing me on the freeway even though I'm doing five miles per hour over the speed limit, getting honked at in traffic, a total stranger failing to hold the door for me even though I'm five steps behind.

None of it should dampen my day. But to me, it meant "You're too slow," "You're a lousy driver" and "You aren't worth waiting the extra three seconds to hold the door."

Depression does that, too. It whispers in your ear. Not in the crazy, hearing-voices sense, but in the sense that you believe the things that happen to you every day are all somehow negative reflections on you as a person, reinforcing the belief that you're right to feel like you are worthless.

With all the misery that depression and anxiety-related disorders can inflict on the sufferer and those who are close, it should seem amazing if someone doesn't seek treatment. Yet many -- probably a majority -- don't seek treatment. Some don't have the means. Some are ashamed to admit they have a disorder. Some aren't even aware they can be treated.

That's why Delonte West's story needs to be told. It's not that his story is unique or remarkable among the countless others who suffer from depression, it's that he was willing to seek treatment, then candidly discuss his battle upon returning to the spotlight.

In the macho world of professional sports, where admitting you need help can be like admitting weakness, it was an especially bold move. The fact that Delonte is a high-profile athlete helps shed some much-needed light on a group of disorders that plagues more people every year, many of whom keep their suffering in silence.

Whether chronic depression and anxiety can be definitely cured is up for debate, but it can be controlled with counseling and medication. It's not always an easy, cause-and-effect treatment, like setting a broken bone. It might take some work to find the treatment options that best suit your case, but I can attest that treatment does work if you stick with it. It's not a magic bullet, but it can improve your quality of life.

Out of all the ways Delonte can use his pedestal as an NBA player to positively affect his community, his biggest contribution might have been as simple as the act of raising his hand and admitting he is a person who suffers from depression, then doing something about it.

We can only hope that many others follow his example.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The elephant in the room

These guys were impostors, right?

The Browns we've come to know and loathe don't piece together three ugly losses to start the season followed by an ugly win against the worst team in the league's backup quarterback, take a week off to gather some extra rust, and emerge as 21-point victors over the Super Bowl champs on Monday Night Football.

Something sinister happened in Berea over the span of those two weeks. Alien abductions? Mass hypnosis? DNA experimentation? Whatever happened, these Browns weren't those Browns.

Or were they?

If you look closely, the evidence is there. Comb through Derek Anderson's re-emergence, pick your way around Rob Chudzinski's unleashing of the offense and look past the return of Braylon "Gluefingers" Edwards. There it is.

Penalties. Stupid penalties. A total of 10 penalties for 55 yards, many of which occurred when players flinched at the line of scrimmage.

Yep. These are definitely the Cleveland Browns. The only difference is, the avalanche of false starts and sprinkling of holding calls and illegal shifts didn't cost them the game. No matter how many times the offense put itself in 5- and 10-yard holes, Anderson and Co. continued to move the ball.

Even when the Browns were at their best last season, this was the case. They didn't stop committing penalties, they moved the ball in spite of their repeated self-inflicted injuries.

It might seem kind of nitpicky to scold the Browns for their penalty problems when they're coming off one of the most significant wins of the new franchise era. If the offense overcame the penalties enough to stick the ball in the end zone three times, that's the point, right?

The answer is yes. For one game, anyway. A game in which Eli Manning threw three interceptions, two of which were picked off deep in Cleveland territory, killing would-be scoring drives for New York. A game in which the Giants racked up five of their own penalties for 38 yards.

But one applause-worthy win doesn't make the penalty problem go away. It's still a giant elephant sitting in the room. If we're not talking about it, it only means we're ignoring it.

The elephant has cost the Browns games in the past, and it will continue to cost the Browns games in the future if steps aren't taken to correct the problem. The offense won't always be able to dig itself out of penalty-induced holes, and the Browns certainly can't rely on a three-pick performance from the opposing team's quarterback every week.

It's a difficult-to-pinpoint problem if you're not in the huddle or on the Browns sideline. There doesn't really seem to be a pattern. It doesn't matter if you've been in the Browns' system forever like Ryan Tucker or are feeling your way through your first year like Rex Hadnot. It doesn't matter if you have a Pro Bowl on your resume or you're a third-stringer. At some point, you probably have been guilty of jumping the gun on the snap.

The false starts tend to arrive in waves, so whenever there is a glitch, it seems to take a few plays for things to settle back down. That's why I think the problem might have its roots in the huddle or on the sideline and not at the line of scrimmage.

The Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto noted that the Browns might have been somewhat intimidated by the Giants' ferocious pass rush, which might have led to a bout with the yips as offensive linemen awaited the snap. Against the Giants, that does make sense. But that wouldn't account for this having been a problem seemingly every week of every season for years.

Making an educated guess based on the evidence available, it seems like it might be a communication problem. Maybe even something as simple as certain players unsure of on which "hut" the ball will be snapped. If Anderson goes to a silent count, the problem gets immediately compounded by a lack of a verbal cue.

There are certain situations where false starts are more forgivable. On the road, in a noisy stadium, even someone with the ears of a hunting dog would probably still have trouble hearing the snap count. But that would seem to be more of an issue for receivers detached from the line than offensive linemen and tight ends who are closer to the quarterback.

But at home, in familiar territory, that shouldn't be an issue. Certainly not to the tune of 10 flags.

I think this is a byproduct of the Browns' larger in-game communication problems. An epidemic of false starts and illegal procedures could very well be linked to the Browns' other game management misadventures, such as Romeo Crennel's infamous decision last year to call a timeout to decide whether to challenge a play, which failed, costing the Browns two timeouts for the price of one.

That is an extreme example, and it would be unfair to pin mistakes at the line of scrimmage exclusively on the head coach, who is usually standing about 50 or 100 feet away from the play. But it's not too much of a stretch to think that if the messages from the sidelines are garbled, confusing or late in arriving, it would lead to some confusion in the huddle and by extension the line of scrimmage.

That might not be the case all the time, but it could be the case a significant percentage of the time, if only because the Browns' prior game management blunders suggest it.

Whatever steps the Browns' coaches need to take to correct the problem, the time to take those steps is now. There is a lot to feel good about in the aftermath of Monday's beatdown of the Giants, but it could all go up in a puff of smoke in the coming weeks if the Browns' offense isn't able to overcome its penalties, killing drives and turning wins into losses.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Cavs' big gamble

The Cavaliers' big man situation is like a house of cards. As long as everything stays perfectly positioned and there are no disturbances, it looks pretty good. But as soon as there is a gust of wind, the whole thing might come tumbling down.

Predictably, it is less than a week into the Cavs' preseason, and the breeze is beginning to blow. On WTAM's Sportsline program Thursday night, Plain Dealer Cavs beat reporter Brian Windhorst told host Kevin Keane that Ben Wallace's back is already starting to act up.

Wallace, 34, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, 33, have backs in the condition that you'd likely expect for two extremely tall men who have spent over a decade pounding up and down hardwood floors eight months a year. That is to say, the kind of backs that make physical therapists wake up in a cold sweat.

Every veteran NBA team has big men battling back issues, just like every Major League Baseball team has pitchers with arm injuries. It just comes with the territory. Abuse a certain part of your body for a couple of decades, and it will develop chronic problems.

But the Cavs' problem extends beyond the spinal column. They don't have a whole heck of a lot on the bench to pick up the slack if Ilgauskas or Wallace miss extended time.

It's realistic to think that Wallace could miss 20 to 30 games this year nursing assorted injuries. In addition to his back, he has a chronically-bad shoulder and it's not a stretch to assume that his knees and ankles ache more with each passing season.

Z played the final portion of last season with a ruptured disk in his back. Luckily, he doesn't have to jump at 7'-3" so his back doesn't have to endure the pogo-stick pounding of some bigs, Wallace included. But it's hard to imagine Z staying on the floor for 82 games. I'd put his over-under on games missed at 10, maybe even as high as 15.

That means the guys who are supposed to provide most of the Cavs' rebounding and interior defense could miss 40 or 45 games between the two of them, just trying to recover from nagging injuries. Which increases the probability that Z and Wallace will miss concurrent games on more than one occasion. So the contingency plan of Mike Brown and Danny Ferry had better include other guys who can play starters' minutes and produce.

Their insurance policy right now consists of Anderson Varejao, J.J. Hickson, Lorenzen Wright and maybe Darnell Jackson -- unless he gets shipped off to the developmental league.

Hickson and Jackson are rookies. Even though Hickson has looked promising in a microscopically-small playing sample, it's unrealistic to think he can step in and provide a starting lineup bandage if Wallace and Ilgauskas are riding the pine. Varejao has started a few games in prior years and could probably perform adequately as a short-term solution. But, lest we forget, he tends to rack up fouls at a prodigious pace. That will probably only increase if the NBA cracks down on charging flops.

Some people have called Wright this year's Scot Pollard. I think he's more like this year's Jay Guidinger.

So in a nutshell, the only reliable backup big man the Cavs currently have is Varejao, and he could end up on the bench in foul trouble four minutes into the game. So if you're looking for stabilizing depth, don't look to the Cavs' backup bigs.

The other option -- the option Brown is reportedly trying to pursue in training camp -- is to shuffle guys to other positions. If Ilgauskas and Wallace end up in sick bay together for a stretch of games, it would be possible to start Varejao at center and LeBron James at power forward, moving Sasha Pavlovic to LeBron's small forward spot and rounding out the backcourt with Mo Williams and Wally Szczerbiak or Delonte West.

The problem with that approach is it would probably neutralize LeBron's superlative athleticism to a degree. It would force LeBron to move closer to the basket, particularly at the defensive end, to guard guys bigger than him and focus on rebounding. He'd take more of a beating in the low-post mosh pit, and instead of running the floor in transition, he'd likely be the guy making the outlet pass.

LeBron is fast enough that he could snatch a rebound, outlet the ball to Williams or West and still sprint up the floor fast enough to finish at the other end. But I'd rather have LeBron be the first guy up the floor on a fast break. If there is nobody between LeBron and the hoop when he gets the ball, there won't be anybody between him and the hoop when he crushes the dunk. Whether in a half court set or in transition, LeBron is at his most dangerous when he can get a head of steam going toward the basket. That was the whole point of Ferry trading for a point guard like Williams.

Playing LeBron at the four-spot could probably work in smaller doses, when the other team tries to put a smaller lineup on the floor, but it seems like Brown shouldn't want that setup for 48 minutes a night.

Any way Brown tries to mask it, the Achilles' heel of the Cavs' roster is going to be exposed at some point: They have two aging, injury-prone starting big men and no real safety net on the roster.

The situation might force Ferry to make a move sooner rather than later. I'm not in the camp that is itching to trade Szczerbiak and his more than $13 million expiring contract as soon as possible. But that, and the possible trade exception that could be awarded the Cavs when and if Eric Snow's retirement becomes official, are the biggest trade bullets Ferry might be able to fire this season.

It's looking more and more that if Ferry is going to move Szczerbiak's contract, it's going to have to be for a big man who can start. But the names that could be on the trading block (Zach Randolph, Eddy Curry and Udonis Haslem, to name a few) don't exactly pop off the page and scream "missing piece to a championship." Randolph is probably the best option from a points and rebounds standpoint. But his attitude problems have been well-documented over the years.

It's never good when your team's GM gets his hand forced into making a deal by circumstances. So far, the two biggest trades Ferry has orchestrated -- February's Wallace-West-Szczerbiak blockbuster and August's Mo Williams deal -- were the products of patience and waiting for the right pieces to align.

But if Wallace and/or Ilgauskas start to pile up missed games with assorted injuries, Ferry might have to become a maintenance man, plugging large holes on a team with NBA championship aspirations.

It's not an ideal situation, but Ferry knows what is at stake. This team is talented enough and motivated enough to win an NBA title this season. But not without healthy, productive big men. One way or another, with or without the cooperation of Wallace's and Ilgauskas' deteriorating body parts, Ferry is going to have to make that happen.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Worshipping The Chin

Bill Cowher has become a folk hero in Cleveland. Or maybe even a messiah.

As we wait for the guy who can make everything all better during yet another foundering Browns season, many of us are looking chinward to the histrionics of Cowher. The man with the passion for the game, the man who yells and screams, the coach who will whip the Browns' sorry butts into shape, unlike the Human Snooze Button, Romeo Crennel.

If only the Browns would be willing to jettison Crennel and give Cowher whatever he wants to take the reins of the Browns, surely better days would be ahead. Not only would Cowher inspire, lead and discipline where Crennel has failed to do all three, hiring the former Steelers boss would be like stealing Pittsburgh's thunder, a chance to give the Steelers a taste of the humiliation they've been heaping on us for most of the past decade.

It would be perfect. A real head coach with real experience, served with a side of freshly-chilled revenge against our arch-rivals.

At least that's the way we want it to happen. In reality, unfortunately, we'd have to file our newfound love for The Chin under "unrealistic expectations." It's another chapter in our futile search for the One Guy who can eradicate the Browns' losing culture.

The Browns could end up firing Crennel and hiring Cowher, but it's probably not going to shape up quite the way you want it to. Like previous regime changes, it would begin with a messy, lengthy process of tearing down the old regime.

First off, if Cowher goes anywhere near the Browns, it won't be until the end of the season. His contractual obligation to the Steelers ended after last season, but there is nothing that says a successful former head coach would want to step in and try to clean up another coach's mess in the middle of the season. Cowher doesn't need to do that, and he wouldn't.

If Cowher takes the reins of the Browns, he won't ride in on a white horse. He'll walk in with a sledgehammer and start demolishing the old roster and coaching staff. Cowher won't be the magic elixir simply because he is familiar with a 3-4 defense and might be able to use some of the same players Savage has collected.

Rob Chudzinski? Gone. Mel Tucker? Adios. Braylon Edwards? Kellen Winslow? Jamal Lewis?Who knows?

The Browns might be in need of another rebuild. Maybe we've seen everything we're ever going to see out of the Savage-Crennel regime. In that case, maintaining continuity for continuity's sake is a bad idea. If Randy Lerner honestly believes that it's time to blaze a new trail, then by all means, he should pursue Cowher, fire Crennel and prepare to tell Savage that Cowher is getting the final say on roster moves -- along with preparing for Savage's inevitable resignation following that news.

But it's an either-or proposition. Hiring Cowher and taking the mythical "next step" in 2009 are mutually exclusive.

Lerner can allow Cowher to come in and spend the next several years stripping down and building up, which would mean several more years of losing, minimum. Or he can try to make it work with his current guys -- at the very least, Savage and another coach who won't demand the decision-making power that Cowher will. But bringing in Cowher, ditching Crennel, forcing Savage's resignation in the process and contending next year is like having your cake and eating it, too.

Pine for Cowher, but understand that it's going to take several more years for him to rebuild the organization in his image. If Savage and Crennel have turned the Browns organization into the quagmire we believe they have, the least Lerner can offer Cowher is the chance to do things his way.

That also means the chance to succeed or fail. Cowher has never built an organization, he's never had to eradicate a losing culture on the field, in the locker room, and perhaps most dauntingly, throughout a fan base that tends to treat 21-point losses like a sign of the Apocalypse.

We'd all like to believe The Chin is still a Brown at heart. He wore the Browns uniform as a player and Cleveland is where his coaching career started. We'd like to believe that when the Browns' Bat Signal beams across the sky, Cowher will answer the call like a caped crusader should.

But that's the problem. Cowher isn't a superhero, he isn't a messiah, he isn't a magician, he's not even a front office guy. He's a coach. More accurately, he's a coach who benefitted from standing on the solid foundation the Steelers provided him for a decade and a half. Outside of the Steelers' fortress, we don't really know what Cowher can do.

Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark came to the Browns from San Francisco 10 years ago. They were well-decorated and well-respected football guys who helped turn the 49ers into the envy of professional football throughout the '80s and into the '90s. Then they were asked to build a football team from scratch and they failed miserably.

Cowher wouldn't have to work with a first-year expansion team should he take over the Browns. But he would have to venture into the uncharted waters of organization-building. That's a task that has already proved to be too large for Policy, Clark, and Butch Davis after them. Now it seems like Savage and Crennel are venturing dangerously close to the same fate.

All of them came from winning organizations. All of them had impressive resumes. Just like Cowher.

Knowing how to win isn't all it's cracked up to be if you don't know how to stop the losing first.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

An uncommon bond

Seldom in the world of baseball does the dismissal of a bullpen coach make waves of any kind. Bullpen coaches are stationed somewhere behind the outfield wall during games at many ballparks. Compared to the guys in the dugout and on the field, it's not a high-profile position. Some casual baseball fans might not even know who the bullpen coach of their team is.

But then there's the curious case of the Cleveland Indians and the man who was their bullpen coach up until this week, Luis Isaac.

Tribe fans don't get the press that other famously-devoted fan bases, like those of the Red Sox and Cubs, receive -- but they can be every bit as obsessive-compulsive. Combine that with a bullpen coach who was employed in some fashion by the Indians for 44 years, a coach who became linked to the beloved 1995 team by serving as mentor and interpreter for the likes of Julian Tavarez and Jose Mesa, and you have a uncommonly-close bond between a fan base and its uncommonly-famous bullpen coach.

So it wasn't much of a surprise that Isaac's firing was met with flame and fume from fans, directed at Eric Wedge and Mark Shapiro, a manager-GM tandem known for preferring subordinates who toe the company line.

At least one report says it's possible Isaac might have been viewed by Wedge and pitching coach Carl Willis as a disruptive force in the club's rank and file, if not an outright threat to authority. Some Latin pitchers, in particular, might have circumvented Willis' tutelage to seek advice from Isaac.

That's speculation for now, but it's easy to envision a Latin pitcher such as Fausto Carmona, Rafael Perez or Rafael Betancourt seeking advice from Isaac, not because they don't trust Willis, but because Isaac is a native Spanish-speaker like them, a coach who has been in the game for decades and is well-respected. It's not too much of a stretch to think that Isaac could become something of a father figure to young Latin American ballplayers getting used to life in a new country and culture.

It would be a shame if Isaac was dismissed just because he was disturbing the organizational flow chart. But it's the Indians, after all. When your team is run by lawyers and MBAs, it does tend to take on a corporate flavor.

Wedge's words on the matter say little.

"I thought we needed a different dynamic in that role. It's something I thought about for a long time," Wedge told reporters.

The phrase "different dynamic" sounds almost sinister in its corporate-speak vagueness. It's left to the reader to decide what Wedge means. Does he mean a younger coach with fresh ideas? Does he mean a company yes-man from the minor leagues? Does he mean a guy who will say "Ask Carl" every time a pitcher comes to him for advice?

Maybe Wedge wants a bullpen coach who catches warm-up pitches, obeys his superiors and keeps his mouth shut otherwise. Maybe Wedge is that much of a control freak. But, as in most conflicts, there are two sides to every story. So if we're going to speculate about all the ways Wedge, Shapiro and Willis might be the bad guys here, we have to at least consider Isaac's culpability.

Perhaps Isaac developed a case of lone-wolf syndrome sitting in the bullpen every game, detached from most of the other coaches. Maybe the bullpen had become his domain, the pitchers within became his subjects and he didn't want Wedge and the dugout crew getting too involved with how he ran things behind the center field fence. If that's the case, Wedge would be more justified in taking a hardline stance.

It's not unrealistic considering that Isaac was the bullpen coach for Mike Hargrove, Charlie Manuel and Joel Skinner before Wedge came aboard. If Isaac had developed an "I was here before you and I'll be here after you" mentality, that could have been potentially damaging to the team.

It's also possible that all the perceived backstage bickering is just the product of our overactive imaginations as fans and media members, and Wedge just wanted someone new. It's not like the Indians didn't get enough mileage out of Isaac's coaching career. When a guy has been with an organization for more than four decades, more that 30 years of which he spent coaching, maybe it's just time for a change.

It's a shame Isaac's Indians tenure came to such an unceremonious end, at the hands of a manager who is already on thin ice with regard to fan acceptance, a manager already known for hanging "uncoachable" tags on Brandon Phillips and Milton Bradley, and having them shipped elsewhere.

In that light, the firing of Isaac looks like another Orwellian move by Wedge, an attempt to surgically remove free thinkers and replace them with easily-governed robots in his dystopian clubhouse society. But chances are, Wedge is far more practical than that.

Assistant coaches get hired and fired all the time. No one gets into professional coaching for the job security. What makes Isaac's dismissal different is that he vastly beat the odds, stayed employed by the same team for 44 years and became a high-profile bullpen coach -- which is an oxymoron in 99 percent of baseball.

Perhaps the fact that many Tribe fans are outraged by Isaac's dismissal is one of the greatest tributes that he could be paid. It means we have recognized him as something of an institution in Cleveland.

For a guy who has spent his summers with pads strapped to his shins, kneeling in dirt, catching practice pitches while concealed behind a door in the outfield fence, it is the most unlikely of outcomes.