Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What never was

The pinnacle of Eric Wedge's tenure as Indians manager came and went like so many other moments that marked his seven years at the helm.

It was on the precipice of something greater that would never be realized. It preceded a downfall. It was the beginning of the end.

If there was one moment in time to freeze from Wedge's now-ending tenure as Tribe manager, it was October 16, 2007. Game 4 of the American League Championship Series versus the Red Sox.

Already clutching a 2-1 series lead, the Indians battled Boston to a scoreless draw for four innings before exploding for seven runs in the fifth off Boston starter Tim Wakefield, highlighted by Casey Blake and Johnny Peralta homers. Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez answered with three straight solo home runs in the top of the sixth, but mustered no further damage. Jensen Lewis and Rafael Betancourt mopped up for starter Paul Byrd, and the Indians won 7-3, taking a 3-1 series lead.

One win away from the World Series. One win away from homefield advantage in the World Series and a Rockies team that was their competitive equal, if not inferior.

That is the snapshot of the Wedge era that we wish we could have and hold. The stands filled with Wahoo-clad, delirious fans, flooding the noisy streets around downtown after the game, honking car horns, reliving the late '90s, when this was all commonplace.

But it was fleeting. It was a prelude to heartbreak. It was the all-too-Cleveland career of Eric Wedge.

Looking back, October 16, 2007 was Wedge's watershed. Before that game, the Indians were building toward something. They were climbing the ladder of success. They had bottomed out in 2003, losing 94 games with a stripped-down, young team in Wedge's rookie managerial campaign.

They climbed to 80 wins in '04, including an August surge that made us believe that this team was on the verge of prime-time ready, even though a late-season swoon put a damper on things. Unfortunately, swoons and collapses haunted Wedge's club on more than one occasion.

The 2005 season was the breakout. Ninety-three wins and their hand on the destiny throttle heading into the season's last week. But a last-week collapse versus Tampa Bay and Chicago killed off a would-be wild card berth. The year after was marred by bad pitching, and the Indians fell to 78 wins.

But then came that magical '07 season. A snowy opening weekend wiped out an entire four-game series with Seattle. The Indians moved their next series, against the Angels, to Miller Park in Milwaukee. The hardship out of the gate seemed to galvanize the team, and the Indians had their only really successful April under Wedge.

The season ended with 96 wins, a division title and a first-round dispatch of the Yankees in four games. As the Indians carried their 3-1 series lead into Game 5 against Boston, it looked like the plan that Wedge and Mark Shapiro had hatched four years previous was about to reach fruition -- perhaps doing what Dick Jacobs, John Hart and Mike Hargrove couldn't: win a World Series.

But Josh Beckett outpitched C.C. Sabathia in Game 5. The Red Sox won, 7-1. And the meltdown was on. Games 6 and 7 at Fenway Park weren't close. Boston rallied to win the pennant, four games to three.

The Indians were never the same. As a manager, neither was Wedge. He won Manager of the Year honors, but the rockslide was already in progress.

What followed was a quick descent. Two years of slow starts quickly rendering the remainder of the season irrelevant, except for grooming young players for bigger roles down the road. Two years of purging the roster of veterans. Two years of sliding toward the inevitable conclusion that was reached on Wednesday, when Wedge's job was terminated, effective at the end of the season.

As so it was that Wedge fell, in the span of 24 months, from the cusp of the World Series to a Peralta groundout that ended the second game of Wednesday's doubleheader against the White Sox. In front of a sparse crowd on a chilly last night of September, Wedge managed and lost the last home game of his Tribe career, so very far away from recent history.

Wedge managed the Indians for seven years, longer than most managers get. He'll go into the record books as the fifth-winningest and third-losingest manager in Tribe history. His lofty standing among Cleveland managers speaks more to endurance than accomplishment. Only Lou Boudreau, Mike Hargrove and Tris Speaker will have managed more Indians games than Wedge when all is said and done this year.

For a low-key guy who preached stability and frowned upon sideshows and distractions in his clubhouse, Wedge will be continually linked to controversy in Cleveland sports circles. The media and fans took frequent issue with his game management skills, his bizarre fascination with players who can play multiple positions, his lack of extensive big-league playing experience on his coaching staff, and his use of the phrase "grind it out," which became part of the Cleveland sports lexicon, but not in a good way.

Most of all, he'll be remembered for walking in lockstep with Shapiro. Wedge will be remembered by the Cleveland baseball-watching masses as Shapiro's puppet, a front office lackey that Shapiro had, in the past, referred to as his "partner."

It's not entirely deserved. Shapiro and Wedge might have been involved in a game of circular back-scratching early on in their partnership, but as the past couple of seasons progressed, the groupthink started to disintegrate.

Some fans might argue that terminating Wedge was a move made to placate the ticket-buying public, who have been staying away from Progressive Field in droves. That's not true. Nobody in baseball thinks offering a manager up as a sacrificial lamb is going to directly solve the problem of lagging gate receipts on any level. If any baseball executive thinks that, he shouldn't be a baseball executive.

Bottom line, if Shapiro and Wedge were still seeing eye-to-eye, Wedge doesn't lose his job.

There will be time to debate the ups and downs of Wedge all winter, as the Indians commence the search for a new manager. Right now, what we have is a manager that was, Octobers that never were and the shaky prospect of what this team might be in several years.

It's a shame it had to end this way. Wedge wasn't the greatest manager in Tribe history, but he wasn't the inept buffoon some believe.

The past seven years could have been better. Maybe they should have been better. But the current reality is that the Indians are right back where they were when Wedge took over in 2003: at rock bottom and trying to claw their way back up through the American League.

Fortunately for Wedge, that's not his problem anymore.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Good guy, bad results

The Browns have an owner, rumor has it. Rumor has it he also cares about the welfare of his team.

Rumor has it he's a lot more involved than the public realizes, that he comes to the Browns training complex in Berea a couple of times a week, has in-depth conversations with his coach and really, truly wants to know what is going on with his beaten, battered team.

Rumor has it that he wants nothing more than to restore the Browns to the glory of the black and white television era. Rumor has it that he has a heart of gold, uncompromising standards of excellence and a lifelong passion for the franchise his father bequeathed to him.

This is what we want to believe about Randy Lerner. We want to believe that he's dying inside as much as we are, watching this team founder, resurface and founder again, week after week. We want to believe that he's going to get the winning formula right. Every new coach, every new GM, every smack of the reset button gives Lerner another shot at redemption. At the very least, he's bound to stumble onto some good hires, right? That's what the law of averages says, anyway.
Lerner is a guy worth rooting for. He exhibits none of the activity normally associated with bad ownership. He's not a penny-pinching miser -- quite the opposite, in fact. He's not meddlesome. He doesn't fancy himself a would-be GM. He doesn't fire coaches or front office personnel at the drop of a hat. He doesn't order trades.

Lerner is not a disengaged owner. He does maintain a presence in Berea, and has taken steps to reconnect the team to its history -- the only thing that really gives the Browns name any meaning anymore. He has strengthened the club's connection to team alumni and developed constructive personal relationships with the likes of Jim Brown, who is now a regular presence at games and the team's headquarters. These are the kinds of things that didn't really happen when Lerner's father let Carmen Policy run the show.

In short, Lerner is involved in promoting the Browns name, stays out of the football operations end of things whenever possible, has deep pockets and is willing to spend money. By any basic measurement, that would be the definition of a good owner in the NFL -- in any sport, for that matter.

But with Lerner, it doesn't add up. He's a good man with good intentions whose team produces bad on-field results. It's difficult to pinpoint a single root cause.

The closest anyone can come to a definite diagnosis is poor hiring of team leaders. It's true, but Lerner's philosophy on building a better football team hasn't been anchored in quicksand.

Much ado has been made by fans and media about Lerner's failure to hire a dynamic team president to serve as the organizational overlord -- a role from which Lerner has shied. Lerner did try to go that route in 2004, hiring NFL executive John Collins to run the show from a 30,000-foot level. It backfired when Collins became entangled in a power struggle with Phil Savage. Faced with an either-or proposition, Lerner parted ways with Collins in 2005.

Lerner's football-specific hires haven't come without credentials. They've come from successful NFL organizations. Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini both learned at the feet of Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. Savage was widely regarded as a draft guru, particularly when it came to amassing defensive talent, as he did with the Ravens. Mangini's GM, George Kokinis, also comes from Ozzie Newsome's gold-standard staff in Baltimore.

This isn't a clueless owner hiring small-college coaches recommended by equally clueless college buddies. Lerner has put time, effort and research into all his hires.

Yet, they've all been busts. Flaming busts, actually. Crennel and Savage were both exposed as woefully lacking in leadership skills. Mangini appears headed for the same rocky shore, but about four times as fast as Crennel or Savage.

The team is cracking under the weight of the instability. Players have not reacted well in going from Crennel's laid-back coaching style to Mangini's heavy-handed discipline. Rumblings of players quitting on Mangini have already started to surface. If you've watched any of the Browns' first three losses, it's hard to dismiss the possibility of a brewing passive-aggressive player revolt.

Yet, that's exactly why Lerner pursued Mangini. To instill discipline on a team that lacked discipline. Or at least that was the plan.

It's easy to paint Lerner as a fool who is blindly enamored with recreating his version of the Patriots in Cleveland by hiring Belichick's coaching offspring. Of course, if you're going to emulate a team, a three-time Super Bowl winner is a good place to start. It has worked fairly well for the Cavs, whose front office philosophies and playbook are heavily influenced by the San Antonio Spurs.
Yet, every decision Lerner has made has ultimately been the wrong decision, building to the net result of a new rebuild every four years or so. If Mangini loses control of this team, the current rebuild might last all of one year.

It's a riddle with no easy answer. Maybe Lerner, between his Long Island home and his controlling interest in English soccer club Aston Villa, isn't attentive enough to the Browns. Maybe he's looking too hard for that one football guru who can singlehandedly turn the Browns around. Maybe he's taking the lazy man's way out of building the Browns.

Maybe his motivation for hanging onto the Browns comes less from a burning desire to turn the team around and more from a sense of duty to the family name. If Lerner sells the Browns after a decade of seldom-interrupted losing, the Lerner name -- and everything his dad worked for all his life -- will be forever tied to the failed ownership of the Browns.

Maybe Lerner just has bad instincts when it comes to making the right hires. He had a chance to put the Browns in a position to hire former Patriots executive Scott Pioli, but Pioli essentially told Lerner that if he were to take the Browns job, he'd scrap the roster and start over. Mangini came along and told Lerner that he could win with most of the current roster intact. Tell the owner what he wants to hear, and ye shall receive. Mangini got the Browns gig, and Pioli is now in charge of football operations for the Chiefs.

The truth probably contains some element of everything. But what we do know for sure is that this ongoing spin cycle is making all parties involved increasingly dizzy and nauseous. And there is no end in sight.

In the cutthroat world of professional sports, good intentions only get you so far. The Browns are owned by a good man who, for a number of reasons, continually enables failure on the field.

Wins and losses are the bottom line, and to that end, Lerner's ownership has damaged the Browns and their reputation. Sooner or later, Lerner will need to acknowledge that. And he'll need to realize that, in all likelihood, the best thing he can possibly do for the city and the franchise is to sell the team.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Lost seasons

Right now, the temptation is to lump the Indians and Browns together in one heaping pile of Cleveland sports suck.

They sure look like two rudderless franchises that offer little in the way of hope for winning in the foreseeable future. The Browns just opened Eric Mangini's first season at the helm with a couple of putrid losses. The Indians might win another game this season. Or they might not. If they don't, they'll break 100 losses for the first time in 18 years.

Both teams seem psychologically beaten. The Browns' competitive resolve breaks around halftime every week. The Indians' competitive resolve broke around Sept. 1, give or take a few months.

The Browns and Indians, for now, both seem resigned to the fact that they are league doormats. That's the truth, but when your teams lose their will to fight, it's pure agony to watch. Which is why televisions across northeast Ohio have been steadily migrating away from Tribe game telecasts to anything else. The Browns, who usually rule the Cleveland airwaves on Autumn Sundays, are a few more disastrous losses from following suit.

The Browns and Indians have a lot of bad, non-competitive, unwatchable traits in common. But there is a difference between Cleveland's downtrodden football team and Cleveland's downtrodden baseball team, at least from where I sit and type.

The Browns are this bad. The Indians, even after purging the roster of almost all competent veterans, aren't.

The Browns simply do not have the talent to compete at a high level. In a league where draft success separates the swans from the ugly ducklings, where trades seldom happen, let alone trades yielding franchise building blocks, the Browns have whiffed time and time again. Their roster shows it, and even the coaching job of a lifetime by Eric Mangini probably wouldn't put these Browns on the fast track to playing meaningful games in December and January.

The Indians certainly have had their own problems with drafting, coupled with Mark Shapiro's well-documented trade and free agency misadventures. But unlike the Browns, the Indians have done enough right to have the talent to stay competitive, to even contend in a less-than-powerful American League Central.

That's why the Indians don't get off the hook so easily in my book. When the Indians underachieve for five months, followed by a September meltdown, I'm not as willing to sit back and let things play out. I want someone to get under the hood and start tuning up the engine.

Unlike the Browns and their systemic issues, which seem to start at the beginning of the free agent signing period and end after Game 16 of another cruddy season, the Indians' problems have less to do with stockpiling talent and more to do with how that talent is cultivated and coached.

It's unfair to lay all the blame for the 2009 collapse at the feet of Eric Wedge, but it's removed just about every shred of remaining ambiguity over whether it's time for a new manager and coaching staff. It's definitely time for a change. Not because Wedge is a horrible manager, as some fans contend, but because it's time to see what a new boss -- preferably one from outside the organization -- can do with the lump of wet-but-moldable clay that is now the Tribe's roster.

Looking at talents like Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley, Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera and the forthcoming Carlos Santana, it's easy to sit back and daydream about what the Indians could become if the right group of leaders can put the puzzle pieces together. Even the embattled pitching staff has undeniable -- if unpolished -- young talent in Justin Masterson, Tony Sipp, Chris Perez, Hector Rondon, David Huff and Fausto Carmona, who desperately needs a stronger guiding hand in his struggle to prove that his 2007 campaign wasn't a fluke.

The Indians stopped stumbling a while ago. They've stopped staggering and even crawling. They'll sort of ooze across the finish line on October 4. But once this nightmare of a season ends, it's time for Mark Shapiro to pick up his steamrolled team and re-shape them, starting with a new manager and coaching staff.

Success is not guaranteed, of course, but it's a logical starting point for a team that should feel as though it's good enough to play meaningful games next September. Maybe they'll need a couple of seasons of maturation before playoff contention is actually realized, but it's a worthy goal that the Tribe's young roster should feel empowered to shoot for.

If several seasons under a new coaching staff yields no playoff contention, it might be time to make changes higher up the Tribe's organizational ladder. But for now, it's time to start small and think big. That's in contrast to the Browns, who always seem to make big moves with small results.

As the Indians euthanize their season a week from Sunday in Boston, the Browns will take the field at home against the Bengals, in all likelihood searching for their first win. They'll also be searching for a lot more: leadership, a team identity and talent at key positions. The same problems they haven't been able to address in a decade's time.

There is a difference between underachieving and being a low achiever. It's the difference between the Indians and Browns. And it's why, despite the built-in parity advantages in the NFL, I fully expect to see the Tribe back in the playoffs before the Browns.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Life with Delonte

It's easy to love Delonte West. Maybe that's by design.

Taken at face value, West is the guy everyone thinks they want to hang out with. His knack for comedy is well-documented on sites like YouTube. Whether he's freestyle rapping about waiting for his KFC order, playfully chastising J.J. Hickson for failing to purchase doughnuts, or offering an opinion on the tools of his trade, he's bound to get laughs.

The surface image of West is of an easygoing, happy-go-lucky guy who loves life, enjoys his career and doesn't have a care in the world beyond basketball. Cavs fans would be fine if the story ended there. Unfortunately, it doesn't. Last week's arrest on weapons charges proves that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Underneath the joke-cracking, easygoing exterior is a young man of many faces, some more troubled than others.

A year ago, West had to leave Cavs training camp to deal with depression issues stemming from a blow-up he had at a referee during a pickup game. He left the team for a week, reportedly received counseling, came back and played a key role on the best regular season Cavs team in franchise history. West was frank and public about his battle with depression, winning him even more support from a Cleveland fan base that was already growing fond of him.

On the court, he continued to play hard-nosed defense and opportunistic offense, battling back from a broken non-shooting wrist in time for the stretch run. Off the court, he kept the soundbites coming. His self-constructed public persona continued to gain stature, and as the wins piled up, West became the second most popular player on the team behind LeBron James.

But when the cameras weren't rolling, a different Delonte emerged. A Delonte who has, in some cases, been a challenge to handle for his teammates and Cavs management.

Brian Windhorst penned an eye-opening article for Sunday's edition of The Plain Dealer, summarizing the ups and downs of West last season. West was charged with marijuana possession in Maryland last August, when he was a restricted free agent. The charge was eventually dropped, but it caused the Cavs to think long and hard before offering West the three-year deal he signed.

After West's training camp depression incident, things quieted, but some odd behavior still bubbled up, Windhorst writes. West could become quiet and sullen as easily as he could become outgoing and jovial. He could spend up to an hour after games silent and staring into his locker, still in full uniform. He frequently showed up late for games last year. He didn't show up for a home playoff game until an hour before tipoff. During a game in Los Angeles, West wasn't on the bench for the starting lineup introductions, and no one knew where he was for at least several minutes.

They're the type of infractions for which players with reputations for being selfish -- like Allen Iverson -- often get fined. But because the Cavs were winning and West was so integral to the team's success on the court and chemistry off the court, the Cavs' big thinkers gave West a wide berth and did their best to look the other way. As long as he kept playing at a high level, no harm, no foul.

Winning cures a lot of ills, and for West, it put his bout with depression and mood disorders on the back burner. Unfortunately, that's probably the worst place to keep them. The sufferer and everyone around the person can convince themselves that everything is stable and the problem is a thing of the past.

No one on the outside looking in knows if West continued to seek counseling or any type of professional help over the summer. What we do know is that last week, he reached a new summit in disturbing behavior.

Last Thursday, he was pulled over by police in Prince George's County, Md. for speeding and cutting off the police car that pulled him over. West, riding a three-wheeled motorcycle, was reportedly found to be in possession of two handguns on his person and a shotgun in a case slung over his back. All guns were loaded.

West was charged with two misdemeanor counts of possessing a concealed handgun. He has a court date set for Nov. 20 in Maryland. He likely faces a suspension of some kind from the NBA, but that punishment might not be handed out until the legal proceedings have run their course.

It's easy to draw a line from West's emotional issues to the weapons charges, but right now, that can't be assumed. It would seem that West's actions are not those of an individual in a clear frame of mind. However, the Washington Post reached West's father, who indicated that West might have feared for his safety.

"All I can say is Delonte was looking behind his back and protecting himself," Dmitri West told the Washington Post. "Bottom line is there's a lot of not-too-nice people out there."

That, of course, opens up a whole new line of questions. Is West simply a rich, famous professional athlete in world of potential stalkers? Did he get mixed up with a bad crowd? And if he's that worried about his safety, why was he buzzing around the area on an incredibly-expensive three-wheeled motorcycle that would stick out like a sore thumb on any stretch of road?

Was West walking a hyper-paranoid knife edge, was he in a delusional state, or was he trying to stock firepower as a show of strength to any would-be attacker? None of it adds up right now, and the picture probably won't become much clearer until the Cavs begin training camp next week.

West was reportedly in Cleveland as of Monday, meeting with Cavs officials about the incident and arrest. Dan Gilbert, Danny Ferry and Mike Brown are in a difficult position. West is still an integral part of the Cavs roster. He is still the team's best perimeter defender and a versatile guard who can start at either backcourt position. His teammates still like him and he's viewed as a glue guy in the locker room. In a nutshell, West still brings a ton of value to the team.

The Cavs would probably look to part ways with a lesser player after such a startling incident, especially given that Ferry and Brown highly value character in their players. But West brings so many positives to the table, it makes the team's decision-makers far more willing to deal with his complexities.

This latest, most severe incident probably won't ruin the Cavs' relationship with West. But it will strain it, perhaps like never before. Once the legal system and the NBA perform their rounds of disciplinary action, the Cavs will likely find themselves under pressure to perform their own corrective steps.

If it could be swept under the rug beforehand, it certainly can't now: Delonte West is a high-maintenance person. Employing him means dealing with his problems and idiosyncrasies, and unfortunately, it appears it also means dealing with his wrongdoings.

Shocking as West's arrest might be, it's hard to envision it causing the Cavs to reach their breaking point with him. But if the sideshows and run-ins with the law keep occurring, it's entirely possible that Cavs management will reach that breaking point someday.

It would be a shame if the skeletons in West's closet destroy what has been, overall, a very positive and mutually beneficial relationship for player and team.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Believing they're bad

What drives fan optimism at the outset of every season? What makes the fans of a perennially awful team like the Browns believe that this is finally the season where, if championship contention isn't achieved outright, then at least the team will start to show some definite signs of moving in that direction?

The Browns made no landmark player acquisitions this spring. Eric Mangini signed a number of retreads from his former team, the Jets, and traded down three times in the first round, ultimately drafting center Alex Mack.

This is, with a few minor alterations, the team Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel left on the doorstep on their way out of town.

So why do we want so badly to believe that this is the year that the Browns start looking like an NFL footbal team? Why, despite years and years of a losing precedent set beforehand, are we disappointed when the Browns come out and falter against quality competition, as they did in Sunday's 34-20 opening week loss to the Vikings?

The answer isn't complicated. We don't want to believe that the Browns are actually this bad. We want to believe that the talent is there to field at least a competitive football team. It's just a matter of harnessing the right coaching and leadership to turn this rag-tag band of misfits into a ship-shape battalion, ready for action.

If you want to believe that, the good news is you're right -- to a point. The Browns can be the team that toted a 13-10 lead into the locker room at halftime, held Adrian Peterson in check for the entire first half, and looked like a tougher-than-expected test for Minnesota, a team with Super Bowl aspirations.

The bad news is, they can also be the team that wilted in mind-numbing fashion in the second half, ultimately letting Peterson run over them for 180 yards and three touchdowns, including an embarrassing 64-yard, fourth quarter touchdown scamper in which essentially the entire Browns defense had a chance to tackle him, but failed to do so.

The really bad news is the same really bad news that has been hanging around for most of the past 10 years: when the Browns encounter adversity, they believe they are the second-half team. And that is the biggest challenge that will face Mangini and his staff. Because until the Browns conquer their own mind games, they're always going to be a league doormat.

What we saw in the second half was a telltale sign of a team mired in a losing culture. At halftime, the Vikings apparently figured they weren't hitting the Browns hard enough with their running game. Minnesota came out of the tunnel determined to use Peterson to pummel Cleveland's defense with body blows. When the Vikings started to succeed with their running attack, the Browns' delicate confidence started to crack.

A small lead became a small deficit became a larger deficit, and whether the Browns' players will admit to it or even realized it, they had packed up their mental suitcase and began counting down the minutes until they could go home.

Everything about the Browns performance in the fourth quarter seemed to say "Here we go again. Can this game be over with already?"

The mistakes, the penalties, the miscommunication on both sides of the ball, Peterson's final-nail touchdown scamper, all of it was the result of a team that was resigned to losing. A team that slowly and skeptically believes in its successes, but whip-crack quick to believe in its shortcomings.

This is what Mangini needs to eradicate. This is the fungal infection left over from Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark in the post-expansion years, an infection that Butch Davis, Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel failed to cure.

Certainly, the root cause of the Browns' struggles isn't all mental. Botched draft picks and free agent signings have created a very real talent deficit. Bad coaching over the years has added more tangles to the knot.

But if you're wondering why teams like the Steelers and Patriots can seem to turn small-college players and pro castoffs into champions, while the Browns botch high draft pick after high draft pick, you have to consider the type of environment that each team provides.

Is it that the Browns consistently overdraft players that lack the talent and skills to succeed in the NFL, while the Steelers and the league's other elite teams continually find diamonds in the rough? At times, yes. But the league's best teams tend to bring out the best in each player. Teams like the Browns tend to bury what talent they do have by bringing players into an environment where losing is so entrenched, the veterans are pretty much numb to it.

If they're not numb, games like Sunday's, repeated week after week, will shortly make them numb. And if the veterans build up thick callouses to losing, what chance do the younger players -- the players who are supposedly going to be around when the Browns finally starting winning again -- have of being any different?

After the game, Mangini had at least one blatantly-obvious, yet spot-on comment. In so many words, he said his team has a decision to make: They can either be the first-half team, or the second-half team.

The first-half team might have to get by on pluck and guile against teams like the Vikings. They might not ultimately win, but they're going to grow a backbone, play smart, minimize penalties, take care of the football and do whatever they can to try and score the W.

The second-half team believes they're bad. The second half team mails in the loss when faced with adversity. Over the span of weeks, the second-half team stops caring, starts playing for individual goals and contracts, and eventually just wants the season to end.

This is where Mangini has to succeed where his predecessors have failed. He needs to get that first-half team to show up and play for 60 minutes every week. It's going to be a tough task, especially during games in which the Browns' best effort might not be enough to secure a win. But it's a mindset shift that needs to occur, or Mangini's best-laid plans will never bear fruit.

The first-half Browns are as undertalented and miles away from contention as the second-half Browns. But it's that team, and their constructive play, that provides the basis for any future hope for a turnaround. The team that showed up in the second half is Mangini's pink slip in waiting, and our express ticket to Regime No. 5 since 1999.

The coming weeks will offer us our first real picture of this team's direction, and on Mangini's ability to be a culture-changer. From the standpoint of Browns fans, it's a far more important task than anything involving X's and O's.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The sounds of silence

In the court of media opinion, it seems like Eric Mangini is a man with two strikes against him before the first pitch is even thrown.

(Yeah, I'm crossing my sports metaphors. Stick with me.)

Most of Mangini's moves, or non-moves, have been met with widespread skepticism, no matter who you read or watch, local or national. All offseason, the chorus line on Mangini has been the same: he works his players too hard, his practices are too physical and he forced his draft picks -- bullied, some have said -- into taking a 10-hour bus ride to Connecticut to work at his football camp.

When he's not being a taskmaster, he's waffling, unable to decide between quarterbacks throughout the preseason, and butchering his first Browns draft by trading down thrice in the first round -- including his decision to trade the fifth overall pick to the Jets, willingly giving USC quarterback Mark Sanchez to his former employer in the process.

Snaking through all of it is the common thread that seems to unite all media members in their contempt for the Browns new coach: his zealous protection of all information surrounding his team. In defense of the people who cover the team, Mangini's CIA-level protection of team information is excessive at times. In some cases, such as naming his starting quarterback, there is solid, competitive reasoning for secrecy, as Mangini wants to keep the Vikings guessing in advance of the Sept. 13 opener. But sometimes, it seems he just stays mum for the sake of staying mum.

All preseason, we've been left to wonder exactly why Shaun Rogers failed to appear in a game. It really offers no competitive advantage for Mangini to keep quiet on why Rogers is sitting out of exhibition games, but Mangini remained tight-lipped.

When the Browns traded defensive lineman Louis Leonard to the Panthers at the start of the month, it was reportedly the Panthers front office, not the Browns, confirming that Leonard had been traded for an undisclosed draft pick.

It's not a new phenomenon. Mangini's attitude toward the media, and his tendency to not disclose even the most mundane information, was fashioned by Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, two of the all-time greatest coaches who have treated football intelligence like war games. Mangini received his first shot as a head coach in the country's biggest media market, meaning that he quickly developed an extreme vigilance in protecting team information against the packhounds in the New York and national media.

It's an overreactive approach that probably needs some fine-tuning now that he's gone from the Walmart of big-box media markets to a comparative mom-and-pop operation in Cleveland. Mangini will have to start disclosing injuries once the season starts, per the NFL's policy. But the damage has already been done. Mangini brought a stable of national media critics with him to Cleveland, a piece of fallout from his Jets days. Once he arrived in Cleveland, he was faced with a local media throng used to the laid-back stylings of Romeo Crennel, now forced to deal with a far more controlling presence in the head coach's chair.

The net result is that Mangini and the media are often at odds, and we as fans are left to pick through the media coverage of this team to try and discern the truth from the coverage that has been slanted by the media's overall negative opinion of Mangini. It can be difficult at times.

In Sports Illustrated's 2009 season preview, Peter King infamously predicts the Browns will finish an NFL-worst 2-14 despite having one of the league's easiest schedules. Keep in mind that despite an ongoing quarterback controversy and the frequent game mismanagement of Crennel and his staff, injuries were the main reason the Browns finished 4-12 last season. Once Ken Dorsey and Bruce Gradkowski had to play out the string as the starting QBs, an 0-6 finish was signed, sealed and delivered. Put either Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn under center for those final six games, and I firmly believe the Browns do not go 4-12.

King's prediction, which I believe is a two-numbered way of saying "I hate Eric Mangini and hope he fails miserably with the Browns" is offset by a team preview capsule in which author Ben Reiter paints a picture of Mangini as a hard-working coach who is trying to instill discipline in his players while attempting to relate to them in a more positive fashion than he did in New York.

Plain Dealer beat reporter Tony Grossi has been arguably the pre-eminent authority on the Browns for more than 20 years. He has earned his standing as the go-to guy for print Browns coverage, but even he has let his irritation with Mangini seep into his writing, referring to Mangini's practice of not disclosing injuries as "mind games," and flippantly commenting that "The Browns will not confirm their final record until some time in March" in his '09 season predictions. (Grossi pegs the Browns at 6-10.)

It would have been a weak grab for a laugh if it had come from the keyboards of opinion columnists like Bill Livingston or Bud Shaw. Coming from the guy who is supposed to provide the public with an unvarnished view of Mangini and his team, it makes you wonder how much of what we read and hear is straight shooting, and how much is slanted to cast Mangini and his practices in an unfavorable light.

It's a shame that it has come to this. There isn't a single culprit. Mangini could back off the screws on some of his disclosure policies, throw the media a few bones and his team wouldn't be any worse for the wear. But the folks who write the stories and record the soundbites that we read, see and hear each day need to accept that they've been given a difficult assignment. No one is asking them to be happy about it, but they need to refrain from letting their personal feelings about how Mangini affects their jobs seep into their coverage of the team.

If something needs to be said on the matter, opinion columns -- like this one -- are the proper forum. If your job is to report the news, then report the news, no more and no less.

The reporters who are sparring with Mangini through their medium of practice might think they're taking the Browns coach down a notch or two on the self-importance scale. But in actuality, they're just making it more difficult for the fans -- the consumers of their work -- to gain an accurate picture of their favorite team.

If the fans have to guess as to what is truth versus what is slanted by Mangini-hate, then the disservice the media is doing to their readers and viewers is worse than any disservice Mangini is doing to the media. The media's job is to accurately inform. Mangini's job is to win.