Friday, January 29, 2010

Overtime overview

The NFC Championship Game sent the Saints to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. It also had the type of ending that only the NFL can provide:

One team, one drive, one possession, one field goal. The Vikings offense never took the field. From the moment Minnesota lost the overtime coin toss, they were fighting a steep uphill battle. As soon as New Orleans' high powered offense crossed into Minnesota territory on the ensuing drive, a field goal attempt was well within sight. From that point on, the game essentially hinged on the accuracy of Garrett Hartley's kicking leg.

It is true that the Vikings -- and more specifically, Brett Favre -- created their own mess. Favre killed a shot at what could have been a game-winning field goal attempt by hip-shooting the ball straight to Saints defensive back Tracy Porter on an incredibly stupid throw with seven seconds left in regulation.

But that interception doesn't change the fact that the events of the game from that point forward still shine a much-needed light on the NFL's overtime rules.

The NFL's sudden death overtimes rules, which have been in place for the playoffs since the 1940s and in place for regular season games since 1974, essentially takes the overtime format the NHL used prior to 2005 and attempts to fit it to football.

There is a timed period -- a full 15 additional minutes in the case of the NFL and five minutes in the case of the NHL -- in which the game proceeds under regulation-time rules, except the NHL now permits one fewer skater on the ice. The first team to score, wins. If the timed period ends and neither team has scored, the game ends in a tie. In order to remove the anticlimactic tie-game outcome, the NHL instituted a shootout system in 2005 as a fail-safe means of determining a winner. If the overtime period ends in a tie, a series of penalty-style shots determines the game.

A tie is still a possible outcome in an NFL game, though it's rare. The last NFL tie occurred between the Eagles and Bengals in 2008, and before that, between the Falcons and Steelers in 2002. It's so rare, after the '08 tie Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb confessed that he didn't even know an NFL game was allowed to end in a tie.

The argument in favor of the current NFL overtime system says that it has rarely failed to decide games. That's true, but it's also true that football possessions are completely apples and oranges when compared to hockey possessions.

In a hockey overtime period, both teams are likely going to have multiple opportunities to take possession of the puck and create a scoring chance. In football, there is no face-off. There is a coin toss, kickoff, and the receiving team takes the ball and drives it down the field. If the offense is successful and the team's kicker has a strong leg, the team that loses the coin toss will never get a scoring chance. The probability of an win-loss outcome is high, but the system is inherently not fair. Both team battled through 60 grueling minutes to reach overtime, and the outcome can hinge on what side of the coin is facing upward.

In the interest of fairness, the sudden-death format isn't the best fit for a game like football. There are other ways to handle overtime games, methods that can produce definite outcomes while allowing each team to have a reasonable chance to win. Let's take a look at a few of them. Some are more practical, some are a little more creative.

Sudden death -- first team to six points

This method is the one I tend to favor. It takes the current overtime rules and eliminates the "win the coin toss, drive the ball and kick the field goal" scenario, which is the most damning argument against the current NFL overtime setup.

In a nutshell, if you win the coin toss and don't want to give the ball to the other team, you need to score a touchdown. If you kick a field goal, the other team still gets the ball back. If they score a touchdown, they win. If they kick a field goal or fail to score, you get the ball a second time. From there, if you can kick a second field goal, you win.

The setup doesn't completely eliminate the kicker from the game's outcome, but it makes the kicker a less pivotal player. It also encourages teams to drive for the end zone instead of field goal range.

Ultimately, this method ensures that if a team succeeds in preventing the other team from having an overtime possession, it's because they earned it by putting the ball in the end zone. If neither team can get the ball into the end zone, field goals can still determine the outcome, but it would be a more difficult task than under the current rules.

College rules

Sometimes called the "Kansas Plan," this is the method made famous after it was adopted by the NCAA. It's also used in various forms by the Canadian Football League and high schools in states around the U.S.

Essentially, it's a hockey shootout adopted to football. Offenses take possession of the ball at attempt to outscore each other in rounds of drives that usually start deep in the opponent's territory. In NCAA-sanctioned college football, the drives start at the defense's 25-yard line. If your offense is on the field in the top half of the first round and you score a touchdown, the other team has to match your touchdown in the bottom half of the round or you win the game.

If you kick a field goal in the top half of the round, you must keep the other team to a field goal or less in the bottom of the round. If the other team answers your field goal with a touchdown, you lose.

The NCAA alternates which team goes first in each round. After the second overtime round, if a winner has not yet emerged, extra points are ruled out and teams must go for two-point conversions after touchdowns. Interceptions and fumble recoveries can be returned for scores by the defense per NCAA rules, but in high school, turnovers usually result in a dead ball and the end of the possession.

This method of overtime makes for great TV. Every football fan in Ohio remembers Ohio State's thrilling, pressure-packed overtime win against Miami in the 2002 national title game. The only trouble is, if overtime goes four or five rounds, the final score and final statistics can really get thrown out of whack.

What was a tightly-contested 17-17 game in regulation can suddenly sprawl into a 45-38 final in which the second-rated defensive team in the league plummets to ninth based on giving up three or four short-field touchdowns in overtime. The NFL values its stats and rankings, and defensive coordinators around the league probably wouldn't be keen on the idea of an offense-biased overtime that has the potential to kill a defense's reputation.

It's a little different in college ball, where dominant defensive teams are few and far between. But in the NFL, where many teams pride themselves on their defense, this style of overtime has hand grenade potential in league meetings.

Move the kickoff spot up to the 40 yard line

This setup would move the kickoff spot up 10 yards from normal regulation kickoffs, which are booted from the 30 yard line. The idea is to increase touchbacks and regularly pin offenses deep in their own territory, which would presumably make it more difficult for a team to take the opening kickoff and immediately drive into field goal range. Putting the offense on a long field increases the probability of fourth-down punts, and therefore, changes in possession.

Here's the problem: If the team that fields the opening kickoff returns the ball to the 10-yard line and the ensuing drive nets little to no additional yardage, that team would then be forced to punt from deep in their own territory, or even their own end zone. Unless the punter uncorks an 80-yard cannon shot downfield, there is a good chance the other team will take over with favorable field position to -- guess what? -- take the ball, drive into field goal range and win the game.

In a roundabout way, it penalizes the team that wins the overtime coin flip. And in the event that the team receiving the opening kickoff is able to pick up a couple of first downs but the drive stalls, the other team is likely taking possession deep in their own territory, setting up a see-saw of drives beginning deep in the offense's territory, and reducing the chances of a scoring opportunity.

The object is to make overtime fair, not kill all scoring chances.

Five-minute periods, with rotating kickoffs

This is sort of a modified shootout format. The clock doesn't stop, so team that wins the opening kickoff doesn't have a lot of time to drive the ball into field goal range. They're basically forced into a hurry-up offense from the outset. If either team fails to score in five minutes, the clock expires and the team that received the first-overtime kickoff must then kick the ball off to the other team at the outset of the next overtime period.

It increases the chance of each team having at least one possession, but this is also a tiring way to run overtime. It's basically a series of five-minute sprints until someone scores. By the fourth or fifth overtime, offenses and defenses would begin to succumb to fatigue, increasing the possibility of injuries and, in hot weather, dehydration.

Full overtime period, followed by a field goal "shootout"

Want to put the game at the feet of the kickers? Make them an absolute last resort. Play a full 15-minute overtime period without sudden-death rules. If the game is still tied at the end of that period, do what the NHL does and decide the game with a shootout. Or in this case, a "kick-out."

Pick a field goal distance that is makeable for NFL kickers, but not a slam dunk. Say 45 yards. Each team lines up, 11-on-11, and attempts one field goal. If both kickers make or miss their attempts, the shootout goes to a second round with the order alternated. If both kickers make their attempts, the line of scrimmage is pushed back a couple of yards, requiring a 47 or 48 yard attempt. If the game still isn't decided, a couple additional yards of distance, and a 50-yard attempt. And so on, until a winner is determined.

If both kickers miss in a given round, the distance stays the same for the next round.

By the time the distance reaches 55 yards and beyond, a missed field goal is only a matter of time.

If you don't like putting kickers in such a powerful position, this isn't the overtime setup for you. But then again, how is it really different from the current overtime rules?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Fighting back

Over the span of an 82-game NBA regular season, the statements made in December and January are generally lost by the time the winter ice thaws.

By the time warm weather arrives and the league's playoff brackets have been pared down to a final four, the battles of wintertime are pages in dusty, seldom-opened history books.

With that in mind, what the Cavs did to the Lakers in two regular season meetings this year could have little to no bearing on what might happen should the teams, who lead their respective conferences, meet again in the NBA Finals.

And yet, it's hard to deny that something happened in these two games, spaced a little under a month apart.

Cleveland won both games, 102-87 on Christmas Day in Los Angeles and 93-87 at The Q this past week. It's a feel-good story for the Cavs. They lost both matchups against the Lakers a year ago, and there is reason to believe that, had they made it past Orlando in the Eastern Conference finals, the undersized Cavs would have been overmatched by the long, limber and skilled frontcourt of the Lakers.

This year, a physically bigger and noticeably more determined Cavs team overpowered the Lakers for about six of a possible eight quarters of basketball.

But the Cavs beat the Spurs twice in the 2006-07 season. It didn't prevent a dominating sweep at the hands of San Antonio in the '07 Finals. So why should we look upon these two wins as anything more than a couple of regular season wins that allow Cleveland fans to puff out their normally-sunken chests a little more than usual?

Because it is entirely possible that the Cavs are to the Lakers what the Lakers were to the Cavs last year -- the worst kind of matchup. And it's entirely possible that fact is not lost on the Lakers.

For all of their versatility and talent, the Lakers do have a potentially-fatal flaw that can be exploited by the right kind of team. The Lakers can be out-muscled, physically overpowered. And when that happens, they tend to go numb. Instead of battling harder, they become frustrated.

Basketball pundits -- certainly those from the L.A. area -- chalked the Christmas shellacking handed out by the Cavs to a hungry challenger facing a reigning champion that didn't take the game as seriously as it should have.

There is an element of truth to that. The Lakers were sitting pretty. The Cavs were trying to avenge last year's embarrassment. Sometimes, you just can't manufacture enough motivation. The Cavs kept momentum on their side by winning hustle play after hustle play. And then -- at least in the minds of the L.A. crowd -- the refs starting jobbing the Lakers, which led to a shower of foam fingers from the stands as the fans in attendance made complete jackasses of themselves.

It was an ugly loss for the Lakers. And what do you do with an ugly loss in the middle of the season? You learn your lessons, wash your hands of it and move on.

A successful veteran team like the Lakers, the defending world champs and two-time defending Western Conference champs, would almost certainly use a loss like that to jolt themselves awake, make the necessary tactical and mental-preparation adjustments, and be ready for the rematch with the Cavs four weeks later.

At the outset of the rematch, the Lakers did look a lot more prepared mentally. They raced out to a 9-0 lead and stretched the lead out to as many as 11 in the first half. The Cavs made their runs, but the Lakers kept out-maneuvering Cleveland, getting buckets when they needed them and maintaining their lead into the third quarter.

But then, that "something" from up-column happened. Something clicked into place. No one knows exactly when it happened, but the Cavs started to impose their will on the game. With Mo Williams on the sideline with a sprained shoulder, with tall, athletic swingman Jamario Moon also injured, with Delonte West giving the Cavs virtually nothing thanks to suffocating defense from Kobe Bryant, the Cavs still managed to dictate the game to the Lakers as the second half wore on.

The Cavs took their first lead at 60-59 in the third quarter, and the Lakers started to submit to what the Cavs were throwing at them. Specifically, a relentless physical assault in the paint and a whole lot of LeBron.

The Lakers didn't try to fight back with muscle. They hit some three-pointers that kept a win within grasp, but they really didn't have an answer -- or try to find an answer -- for Cleveland's power game.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign for the Cavs is that they won at a playoff pace. In the fourth quarter, the game slowed into a deliberately-paced cross between a chess match and Greco-Roman wrestling. Both teams tried to control the ball and use the shot clock. It wasn't pretty. But it was intense.

If you took the second game between the Cavs and Lakers and dropped it into the middle of June, it would find itself right at home. Or at least the Cavs would. The Lakers, they might need to do some remodeling.

After the game, both Bryant and Phil Jackson addressed the Lakers' lack of physical presence, specifically pointing the finger at Pau Gasol. The skilled seven-footer is supposed to serve as the most vexing interior matchup problem any team has to face when game-planning for the Lakers.

Gasol ended up with 13 points on 5-of-14 shooting. That's following his 11-point, 4-of-10 effort on Christmas Day.

As much as Shaq was never designed to defend the pick and roll, Gasol was never designed to play mosh-pit basketball. His greatest strength lies in his post moves around the hoop, not in his ability to muscle the ball onto the rim. He can go around and over, but seldom through, his defender. When he's being guarded by the human wall that is Shaq, the mismatches are evident.

The Cavs won the rematch by winning the game in the paint. With Leon Powe slated to come back after the all star break, and the door open for Danny Ferry to acquire another forward before the Feb. 18 trade deadline, the Cavs' grip on interior basketball could strengthen as the playoffs approach.

As for the Lakers, everything is relative. In the Western Conference, they are the bullies on the block. Surrounded by mostly finesse teams, they have unparalleled size and strength in being able to trot out Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest. The vast majority of teams in the league don't have an answer for that challenge. Last year, the Cavs were among that vast majority.

This year, armed with Shaq, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, an improved Anderson Varejao and the potential future contributions of Powe, the Cavs are one of the few teams that can give the Lakers fits.

It's not a guarantee of beating the Lakers four times in seven, if that's the matchup come June. But the Lakers have now seen the new-look Cavs -- bigger, stronger, tougher -- and they don't like it one bit, whether they admit to it or not.

That, in and of itself, is something to file away for later in the year.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Power hungry

With Thursday's game in Utah, the Cavaliers will have reached the midpoint of the 2009-10 season. Next Monday, January 18, will mark one month and counting until the NBA's trade deadline.

In the often-referenced words of Yogi Berra, it gets late early around here.

For the Cavs, a team pulling out all the stops to try and win the NBA title this spring, time is especially of the essence. Danny Ferry isn't just trying to win a championship. He's making his closing arguments to LeBron James, who will dive headfirst into the free agent waters on July 1. Ferry has to show LeBron that the Cavs are capable of fielding not just a championship contender, but a championship favorite kind of team -- one of the two or three teams each year that sits on the league's ruling council. At or near 60 wins, a top-two conference seed and a regular participant in the late May and June playoff rounds.

A general manager's ability to piece together that kind of team is often governed by circumstances he largely can't control. Primarily, money and opportunity. A GM needs access to well-stocked coffers supplied by the team's owner, and he needs other GMs who want to make a deal.

In the past two years, Ferry has turned Dan Gilbert's money and several trade opportunities into Delonte West, Mo Williams and Shaquille O'Neal. This summer, after acquiring Shaq, he took the free agent money that Ron Artest and Trevor Ariza turned down, and used it to sign Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon.

The Cavs roster is more athletic and versatile than it was even a year ago. Over the past two years, through several rounds of trades and opportunistic signings, the Cavs have done a lot to close the talent gap on the likes of the Lakers, Magic and Celtics.

But when you're trying to win a title and keep your everything-star from seriously considering flying the coop, the roster is subject to a few extra layers of scrutiny from eyes both inside and outside the organization. Every scratch, dent, pit, chip and dimple is held up to the light and examined for its championship-derailing potential.

For the Cavs, the eyes keep going to one area on the floor in particular: The power forward position.

J.J. Hickson has started there for most of the season. He's a second-year player, and while he has demonstrated tremendous athletic ability at times, he also coasts through long stretches of games, sometimes looking lost on the floor, sometimes just looking like he's not all that interested in competing hard.

No one player has probably made Mike Brown's blood pressure rise more this season than Hickson. He's benched Hickson for remainders of games after a mental goof, usually at the defensive end. Sometimes Hickson responds well, but often, the message seems to whistle over his head.

Hickson isn't a bad apple. But he is out of place as the starting power forward on this team. He's working on remedial coursework while the veterans on the team are enrolled in the doctoral program. Honestly, Hickson probably belongs on a young, rebuilding team where he can grow with players who are similar in age, with a coach who can afford to keep playing him through his mistakes.

The Cavs' situation is simply too high-pressure for the team to live with Hickson's growing pains, particularly as the stretch run and playoffs approach.

The other option is starting Anderson Varejao alongside Shaq, which Brown tried at the outset of the year. But Varejao seems to be at his best when he's coming off the bench as a change of pace. His game most closely resembles that of a center, anyway. Outside of the paint, he's really not much of a scoring threat.

That leaves an outside acquisition as the only other means of upgrading the power forward spot between now and the deadline. Ferry apparently has recognized the need for a legitimate starting big forward, and all signs point to him being aggressive in attempting to make a trade in the next month.

But Ferry has to find a dance partner before he can make a trade. Fortunately, there are a few teams that might be willing to give the Cavs a starting forward for the right price. And thanks to the expiring contract of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the Cavs would be able to pay the price.

Here are a few of the options Ferry might conisder:

Antawn Jamison, Washington Wizards

He's by far the player the Cavs -- and the fans -- want the most. At 6'-8" and about 235 pounds, Jamison is actually something of a small forward-power forward combo. He was utilized mostly as a small forward during earlier-career stops in Golden State and Dallas, but switched exclusively to the four-spot after arriving in Washington, where he's in his sixth season with the team.

Jamison is 33, so he's not as spry and athletic as he used to be. But he's aged gracefully, all things considered. He has managed to stay away from major injuries throughout his career and has kept himself in great shape, so he plays younger than his age.

The most attractive aspect of Jamison is the balance of his game. He really has no fundamental weaknesses for a player at his position. He can spot up and shoot jumpers with range out to three-point territory, he can put the ball on the floor both facing the basket and posting up, he can defend bigger players and he rebounds.

To boot, he's one of the game's really good guys. In the midst of the recent Gilbert Arenas gun flap -- which included a widely-circulated picture of Arenas making a pistol-gesture with his fingers while other players, Jamison included, laughed -- it was Jamison who stepped up, apologized for the picture and appealed to Wizards fans to keep supporting the team.

In short, Jamison is the kind of guy you'd never not want on your team. That's the biggest problem where the Cavs are concerned. The Wizards appear to be on the precipice of a major rebuild, so whether they can get the league to void the remainder Arenas' contract or not, the logical plan of attack would be to start trading off veterans for younger players and more cap flexibility down the road. But the Wizards are so hungry for good PR right now, they might view Jamsion as the guy they need to be the face of their franchise until his contract ends in two more seasons.

If the Wizards did decide to trade Jamison to the Cavs, Z's expiring contract and Hickson would likely be theirs. Even if Washington GM Ernie Grunfeld abhors the idea of trading Jamison to the team that tormented the Wizards in the playoffs for three straight years, that's still a pretty good haul for a team looking to get younger and cheaper.

Troy Murphy, Indiana Pacers

This might actually end up becoming the most likely trade scenario for the Cavs. Some fans will undoubtely be upset if the trade deadline yields Murphy instead of Jamison, but the truth is, Murphy might be the most readily-available power forward out there for a team like Cleveland.

The Pacers probably wouldn't try to extort a king's ransom for Murphy. Rumors have swirled that Murphy isn't all that happy with Pacers management, and he's not a centerpiece player for Indiana in the same way Jamison is for the Wizards. He's owed about $12 million next year, and it's entirely possible that the non-contending Pacers would take an expiring deal in return just to get him off their books.

Murphy isn't the dynamic all-around player that Jamison is, but he does bring some assets to the table that fit what the Cavs need. He's a "stretch four" -- a power forward with three-point range on his shot, who will force opposing big men to venture out of the paint to contest shots. The benefit of having a big man who can shoot from long range is that it opens up more operating space for Shaq inside. Throughout his career, Shaq's teams have always had the most success with him when they could pair him with a perimeter-shooting power forward.

Murphy will rebound to the tune of eight to nine a game, so he's not adverse to going inside and mixing it up a bit. He's slow afoot and not regarded as a good defender, but Brown once got Sasha Pavlovic to play good defense in stretches. After that, I believe anything is possible.

At 6'-11", adding Murphy is virtually like adding another seven-footer to the roster. Against teams with other tall frontcourts, like the Lakers and Magic, the more height, the better. And if none of that fits Murphy into the Cavs' long-term plans, his $12 million expiring could become a major trade chip for next year's deadline.

David West, New Orleans Hornets

The Hornets have been on every media member's short list of teams most likely to blow up the roster and start over. The Hornets have been among the NBA's biggest disappointments for going on two years and a rebuild appears inevitable.

If that's the case, West will likely be among the first out the door since he can fetch both cap relief and young talent in return.

West was a 20-point, eight-rebound player heading into this season. This year, however, he's attempting more than two fewer shots per game over last year, and his scoring average is down to 17.5 per game. Still very good, but not trending in the right direction.

There is a school of thought shared by members of the media and message board communities that says West is riding the coattails of Chris Paul, benefitting from the attention paid to Paul by defenses, combining it with a consistent midrange jumper, and using it all to masquerade as a borderline-elite scoring forward. West has some obvious scoring talent, but he was a bit player prior to Paul's arrival. You can look up his career stats and be the judge.

LeBron could have much the same effect on West, and he would certainly be an upgrade over what the Cavs current trot out at the power forward. But there are better options out there.

Mehmet Okur, Utah Jazz

At this point, it's a stretch to think Utah would start shedding salary. They're still in the playoff hunt in the Western Conference. But if Utah did decide to punt away a big contract to save some money, Okur would be high on their list. He makes $9 million this year, and is signed for two more years.

Okur is a step down from even Murphy as an overall player, especially if the Cavs were to play him at power forward. But Okur does fit the stretch-four mold. He is a 6'-11" natural center who can step back and shoot the three. He's a career 37.8 percent three point shooter, and shooting the longball at a 39-percent clip this season. If you need a catch-and-shoot three-point gunner with height, Okur can fit the mold.

While we're on the subject of the Jazz, let's get the Carlos Boozer thing out of the way now: No. He has an expiring contract, the Cavs have an expiring contract to trade, so that's not going to work -- even if the hatchet has been completely buried and forgotten from Boozer's defection in the summer of '04.

Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies

If all else fails, why not take a stab? He's insane and locker-room powder keg, but he's having a monster season, averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds per game. A motivated Z-Bo is an absolute beast on the block.

The Grizzlies are actually one of the surprises of the league so far. They're in the playoff hunt, and that alone will probably keep Randolph off the market. But if Memphis suddenly falls out of contention and wants to trade Randolph, and if the Cavs have had nothing but doors slammed in their face on their power forward quest, maybe Z-Bo fits in some kind of freaky, alternate-universe kind of way.

Friday, January 08, 2010

A delicate situation

It would be so easy for Josh Cribbs to look like the good guy in his contract dispute with the Browns.

He has been told to play the role of the good soldier on numerous occasions. The ongoing message from Browns management -- in all its changing forms -- to Cribbs has been "Do what is asked of you, and we'll take care of you when the time is right."

Cribbs has done all that and one heck of a lot more, last month virtually dragging the Browns to their first win over the Steelers in six years. With an NFL record eight career kickoff returns for touchdowns to go with punt return scores and a mastery of the kick coverage game, Cribbs has already cemented himself as quite possibly the greatest non-kicking special teams player the league has ever seen. His playmaking ability out of the "wildcat" formation on offense is an extension of the quick moves and superb field vision he displays on kick returns.

He is, quite simply, a unique talent. You can certainly make a case that within the past half-decade, Cribbs and left tackle Joe Thomas have already staked their claim as the best Browns players of the expansion era.

Now, Cribbs wants his salary to match his accomplishments and abilities. No harm there. Three years ago, he signed a six-year, $6.8 million deal that included a $2 million signing bonus. For a young player who was signed as an undrafted free agent from Kent State in 2005, that was big money and big-time security.

But this year, with Cribbs a certifiable NFL star, the $600,000 he made this year looks relatively paltry. He wants starting receiver money, like Chicago's Devin Hester -- one of the few return men in the league who is in Cribbs' class. Hester signed a four-year deal in 2008 worth up to $40 million. But Hester has been exactly that this year -- a starting receiver. Cribbs flopped as a starting receiver, and outside of kick returns and coverages, is relegated to taking direct snaps a few times a game.

Cribbs began to make waves over his contract in the second half of the season. He put a self-dictated end-of-season deadline on getting a new deal. That didn't happen. Then Mike Holmgren officially began his job as the new team president, and Cribbs knew the man he needed to talk to was in town.

One of the first acts of the Holmgren regime was indeed to offer Cribbs a new contract. But it wasn't anything close to what Cribbs and his agents had in mind. The Browns reportedly put an offer on the table worth about $1.4 million per year.
Better than $600,000? Certainly. The type of money that a game-changer like Cribbs should be making in the NFL? Probably not.

Which is why Cribbs could have very easily spun this situation 100 percent in his favor within the court of public opinion.

It was a lowball offer. It was insulting, as Cribbs' agents declared. It reeked of a new management regime hastily shoving an offer across the table to see if Cribbs would bite. If the Browns were going to make that kind of an offer to a guy who has been one of the team's very few consistent high performers for the last five years, they probably needed to just table discussions until Holmgren could hire his general manager and the club's big thinkers could come up with a better plan.

But the only person who might be handling this worse than any member of the Browns is Cribbs himself.

If he wants to threaten a holdout, fine. If he wants to threaten to demand a trade, fine. Even Hester did that prior to signing his new deal. Unfortunately, in the NFL's contract negotiating system, which is decidedly antiquated in a lot of ways, raising a fuss is the only way a player can generate any leverage.

But maybe the fuss should be saved primarily for team management. Instead, Cribbs is spewing histrionics via his Twitter account and any microphone that can pick up his voice. This past week, when he showed up at the team's Berea headquarters to clear out his locker for the season, he told the assembled media that he believe he had played his last game for the Browns. He told the media that he said his permanent good-byes to the team training and medical staff.

On Twitter, his comments have included "I don't believe I made the to do list for the team in 2010" and "I just hate being taken advantage of ... What else is new?"

There is a lot of water left to tread between where the Cribbs-Browns negotiations sit, and the irreconcilable differences that could lead to a trade. Chances are still very good that he and the Browns will be able to find a common ground and Cribbs will be in uniform, if not for organized team activities this spring, then for training camp in July. This isn't even close to over.

Which is why Cribbs declaring his relationship with the Browns over and done with, and doing it publicly time and again, seems a little less like hardball negotiating tactics and more like a petulant grade-schooler storming up to his room and slamming the door.

Cribbs is trying to get the fans and the media opinion columnists to come down hard on the Browns under the threat of having to watch him play for another team. But facts are facts. Cribbs is under contract, he has no legal way under NFL rules to force the Browns' hand into giving him a raise or trading him, and Holmgren hasn't yet hired a GM. The GM would logically be the executive who would handle contracts and salaries, not Holmgren.

Maybe there was no good way out of this for the Browns. Maybe if they tell Cribbs to sit tight a little while longer while Holmgren hires a GM and pieces together his management team, Cribbs gets impatient and we arrive at the same Tweets and media spout-offs that have occurred this past week.

But after watching the Browns disgracefully lowball Cribbs, and then watch Cribbs throw a multimedia temper tantrum, I'm beginning to think stall tactics are the approach Holmgren should have used.

The Browns' front office, under construction yet again, is apparently in no shape to carry forth high-pressure contract negotiations at the moment. So they shouldn't have tried.

And for Cribbs, a simple "no" followed by a simple, privately-delivered "I'm not coming back here without a new deal" would have sufficed. Act like the experienced veteran you want your salary to reflect. Not like a sniveling rookie being told to run laps for the first time.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Weighing the options

By the time you read this, you may already know Eric Mangini's fate as Browns coach. The situations is fluid, and changeable by the hour.

By as the hours have gone by this week, the one constant has been uncertainty. New team president Mike Holmgren appeared in front of the cameras at his first official Browns press conference on Tuesday, essentially saying that he'd like to have a decision on Mangini's future soon. But not too soon. It could be by the end of the week. Or maybe he extends his self-imposed deadline for more consultation, maybe a subsequent meeting with the team's first-year (and possibly last-year) coach.

As we slog through the murky swamp that has become Mangini's Browns future, we can't help but wonder whether even Holmgren himself was anticipating this touch-and-go decision process.

When Holmgren agreed to take the reins of the franchise a couple of weeks ago, he might have had a pretty good idea of how he wanted to proceed. Which is to say, his own coach and his own general manager. The type of organization Holmgren wanted to build here -- rooted in his Bill Walsh-based upbringing as a coach -- is in stark contrast to Mangini's background, heavily influenced by Bill Belichick, who is a branch on the Bill Parcells coaching tree.

On top of that, the results produced by Mangini offered no reference that favored keeping his job. When Holmgren took the job on Dec. 21, the Browns had just won back to back games against Pittsburgh and Kansas City, but they still stood at a bottom-feeding 3-11.

Heroic performances by Josh Cribbs and Jerome Harrison aside, the decision for Holmgren was as easy as a snap of the fingers. Season ends, Mangini gets his walking papers, and Holmgren sets about finding a coach and GM who have the same football philosophies that he does.

But we're talking about the Browns here. It can never be that simple. Something with tentacles always comes along and inks the water.

The ink cloud came in the form of the season's final two games, against Oakland and Jacksonville. The Browns won both games. You could even say they won both games convincingly. The Raiders definitely aided their own demise with serial personal fouls in a 23-9 Browns win, but it was still a game the Browns pretty much controlled start to finish.

In the season finale last Sunday, the Browns jumped out to an early 10-point lead over the Jaguars and seemed to control the flow and pace of the game for 60 minutes. The final score read 23-17, but it wasn't quite that close.

In short, taken purely within its own context, December 2009/January 2010 was the Browns' most successful month of the expansion era. Four wins, one loss, and that loss to San Diego way back on December 6 contained a furious fourth-quarter rally that fell short. The month contained their first four-game winning streak since 1994 and their first four-game streak of 160-plus rushing yards since 1968.

Production appeared from all directions. The accomplishments of Cribbs and Harrison are well-documented, but the Browns also received noteworthy contributions from lesser-known names on defense, like Matt Roth, Marcus Benard and Ahtyba Rubin. Joe Thomas and Alex Mack continues to grow as current and future stalwarts of the offensive line. Lawrence Vickers played a key role in helping Harrison roll up a series of 100-yard rushing efforts.

The Browns came together in the season's final month. You can say it was because of Mangini or in spite of Mangini, but the key fact is that Mangini was presiding, and it has forced Holmgren to soften his stance on how he wants to move forward.

Holmgren has to consider both the pluses and minuses of keeping Mangini on board, even for just next season, with no guarantee afterward. When laying everything out on the table, here are the factors Holmgren has to be looking at:

Why Mangini should stay:

1. Maybe Mangini was right all along

Maybe it is a process. Maybe it took almost a year for Mangini to instill his own brand of discipline on a resistant roster. Maybe it took that long to weed out some of the dissenters and negative influences like Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow and Jamal Lewis. Maybe going from Club Romeo to something resembling a real NFL team was actually this difficult.

If that is the case, it would be a setback to stomp the sprouts growing from the seeds Mangini has sowed in the past year.

2. Mangini grew as a coach this year

At times, it's easy to forget that Mangini is only 38 -- a tyke by NFL head coaching standards. He's still growing in his job as much as his players are. And he underwent a great deal of growth this season.

Mangini came to town like a tornado. Fresh off the ego rush of being given total control of the football operations by Randy Lerner, Mangini quickly became enthralled with the idea of himself as an authoritarian ruler. His disciplinary tactics were heavy-handed (who can forget the story from the preseason, when Mangini reportedly fined a player $1,700 for not paying for a bottle of hotel water?). He was aloof toward the media. He grated on players. Jamal Lewis criticized Mangini for allowing too much contact in practice. Rookie running back James Davis was lost for the season due to a shoulder injury on a post-practice contact drill that was reportedly approved by Mangini.

But Mangini's attitude seemed to soften considerably when GM George Kokinis parted ways with the team in November. Kokinis alleged that Mangini went over his head on personnel decisions, including the Edwards trade, effectively undermining Kokinis' decision-making power over the roster. Kokinis, a longtime associate of Mangini going back to their days as interns with the Belichick Browns, was escorted from headquarters in Berea, which tends to make you think he had some choice words for Mangini on his way out the door.

With his GM gone, the losses piling up and speculation rampant that he was doomed to be a one-and-done coach in Cleveland, Mangini seemed to shift from a dictator with a grand scheme to a coach just trying to win each Sunday and save his job.

Perhaps, over the course of the season, Mangini went from being the team, to being a team player. If that's the case, the idea of keeping him around for another year becomes a lot more palatable.

3. Rob Ryan

In the end, this probably won't be anything that Holmgren considers when deciding Mangini's fate, but hiring Ryan as defensive coordinator is easily the best personnel move Mangini has made. Ryan looks like a cross between Santa Claus and a drifter, but he's inherited the defensive smarts of his dad, Buddy Ryan. And he's a passionate leader, which players latch onto. Ryan has taken a defense of mostly no-names and gotten them to play over their heads on more than one occasion this season -- most notably in the win over the Steelers.

The stats might not bear it out, but Ryan is an excellent defensive coordinator. Unfortunately, if Mangini goes, Ryan probably goes, too.

Why Mangini should go:

1. Differences in team-building and coaching philosophies

Obviously, the most glaring reason why Holmgren and Mangini can't coexist. You don't hire a French instructor to teach a Spanish class. And that's the essential difference between Holmgren's football background and Mangini's. It's no one's fault. It's just a fact of life in this situation.

2. Should the last month really make up for the previous 11?

The ledger still says Mangini did a lot more wrong than right over the past year. The draft netted Alex Mack and Mohamed Massaquoi, who both look like keepers. But for a team that was slated to pick fifth overall, Mangini's trade-down draft strategy looks like an overall goof. David Veikune, a non-contributor taken in the second round, is the poster boy for Mangini's draft-day ineptitude.

You could make a case that Mangini bungled the quarterback competition in training camp, waiting way too long to name a starter. And there is no question that there was a major communication breakdown between he and Kokinis over personnel authority, which led to the breakdown of their relationship.

3. Star search

Mangini doesn't like to deal with the egos of star players. He'd rather build a team of role players that is greater than the sum of its parts. Holmgren's background includes the likes of Joe Montana, Steve Young and Brett Favre. He wants stars, particularly at quarterback.

Asking Mangini, who can come off as aloof at times and has well-documented shortcomings as a communicator, to oversee an egotistical starting quarterback who needs equal parts butt-kicking and shoulder-massaging, might not be the best idea. As we saw in '08, when Favre and Mangini attempted to coexist with the Jets. It was the last season for both QB and coach in that organization.