Thursday, August 26, 2010

The past is history

As a football player, Jim Brown deserves all the respect in the world. Even today, 45 years after he abrputly walked away from football at age 29, he is still one of the defining players in the history of the NFL.

His career rushing record of 12,312 was an all time record that stood until Walter Payton surpassed it in 1984. Since then, seven other rushers have passed Brown's mark, set in the days of 12 and 14-game schedules, and yet Brown is still regarded by many knowledgeable students of football history as the greatest running back -- and perhaps the greatest player -- to ever set foot on an NFL field.

He is certainly the greatest player in Browns history. If anyone were to take that title from Brown, he would have to be a truly special player. Brown's combination of size, speed, coordination and power made him the perfect physical specimen for the gridiron. His intense competitive spirit made him a winner -- something that LeBron James, who was briefly considered the co-greatest athlete in Cleveland history with Brown, might have benefited from this past spring as the Celtics were mopping the floor with Cavs in the playoffs.

Brown deserves to be remembered and revered for his contributions to the Browns organization in his playing days. No other Browns player will ever wear No. 32, and when the Browns introduce their ring of honor next month, Brown's name should be the first revealed, even before Otto Graham, Paul Brown or Lou Groza, who all won more championships than Brown. It is because Brown was that great as a player, and he is that important to the history of the organization.

....To the history of the organization.

Brown has still hung around the Browns organization, on and off, since retiring. But football was never really a priority of his once he pulled off the shoulder pads for good. He sowed his wild oats as an actor in Hollywood, he threatened to return to action with the Raiders in 1983 when Franco Harris was within striking distance of his all-time rushing record. He became a community activist by founding the Amer-I-Can program, helping to steer inner-city youths in Los Angeles away from gangs and drugs.

But he was still Jim Brown. And when Randy Lerner assumed control of the Browns after his father's death in 2002, he needed an advisor. Someone with a football background who could give him an insider's perspective on what to look for in front office personnel, coaches and maybe even scouting players.

Brown had his hand up, and Lerner couldn't say no to an all-time great. Brown was hired on as an executive advisor to Lerner, reportedly making a six-figure salary in the role.

If Brown was a figurehead, a community ambassador in charge of making public appearances on behalf of the team, there would have been no harm in giving a revered alumnus a cushy front-office job. But, based on what has happened since Mike Holmgren took the reins of the team last December, it appears Brown held real sway within the organization.

Earlier this year, Holmgren told Brown that his services as an advisor were no longer needed, essentially firing Brown on the spot. According to media reports, the Browns have also curtailed their monetary contributions to the Amer-I-Can program.

Brown was understandably upset, and now a rift exists between the rushing great and the team with which he has been virtually synonymous for almost half a century. There is reportedly a significant chance that Brown will not show up to the team's ring of honor introduction ceremony during the Browns home opener on Sept. 19. Even if he does show up, it might be with a coating of ice.

Perhaps at some point in the future, the relationship can be repaired. But at this point, how Jim Brown feels about the Browns, and his dismissal from the organization, just isn't important.

Right now, keeping Brown happy should be pretty far down the list of priorities for a team that has been one of the league's laughing stocks since returning to action in 1999.

Jim Brown, at 74 and with little pro football experience over the past 45 years, would appear to not know very much about how to run a modern NFL team. If he has been the man advising Lerner on the Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel hires, on giving Eric Mangini total control of the football operations, the evidence would seem to bear that out. And if Lerner took Brown's advice to heart, it simply underscores how unqualified he was as the decision-making head of an NFL franchise, and how relieved we should all be that Holmgren agreed to take over the top decision maker's role.

Really, Lerner tabbing Brown as an advisor on football matters makes about as much sense as Larry Dolan hiring 91-year-old Bob Feller as an advisor on baseball matters. Feller has the same advisor qualifications as Brown. He was an all-time great on the field, and he's opinionated. That's about it.

If Brown did have Lerner's ear to the point that Holmgren felt he needed to dismiss him in order to achieve the rank and file he desired, then showing Brown the door was unquestionably the right move, no matter how hurt Brown might be. Knowing that Brown is fiercely proud and rather temperamental, chances are he wasn't going to take his dismissal laying down. There was going to be some kind of public backlash from Brown. It's just the way he is.

Holmgren should simply continue to remain positive about the matter, demand that everyone else in the organization do the same, and go about his business secure in knowing he made the right move.

Holmgren is in the business of this team's present and future. Of trying to rescue the wayward expansion Browns, give them an organizational rudder and pilot them back to contention. If any visitors from the team's past are trying to pass Holmgren notes, coaching from the sidelines like overzealous soccer dads, telling him what they think he should do, it's needless clutter at best and an outright insult to Holmgren at worst. Holmgren shouldn't, and won't, put up with the possibility of that.

The Browns owe a lot to Jim Brown: gratitude, respect, his name engraved on any team plaque or monument that is worth anything. But they don't owe him a job. And they certainly don't owe him the chance to put his rubber stamp on personnel moves.

Jim Brown is an integral part of the Cleveland Browns' past. But only the past. It took Randy Lerner about eight years to finally hire someone who could stand up and tell him that.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Browns, boiled down

In this town, we love to analyze football. And we really love to analyze the Browns.

Sometimes I wonder if we, as a fan base, out-think ourselves. We're so thoroughly schooled in the nuances of the sport, in the theory of roster-building, from an early age that we sometimes forget to answer the simple questions first.

We look at the construction of the rebuilt linebacker corps, the lack of depth at wide receiver, the mostly-young secondary, the committee situation developing at running back, the Swiss Army knife that is Josh Cribbs, and we try to mash it all together into some kind of blackboard-filling calculus equation that will determine, beyond a reasonable doubt, the trajectory of the upcoming season.

But sometimes, the most basic questions are the most important. And in the case of this year's Browns, I keep coming back to two main questions that will likely determine the course of the season:

Can the roster stay mostly healthy? Can the Browns get good quarterback play?

Injuries and poor QB play have dogged the Browns since returning to the league 11 years ago. The two most successful seasons since the relaunch, 2002 and 2007, featured a relatively healthy squad and spikes in the performances of Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb and Derek Anderson.

The seasons in which the team was on its fourth center by opening day? When Charlie Frye looked like he might not even make an Arena Football League roster? The Browns were a league doormat.

You don't need to be scientific about it. Quarterback is the most important position on the field. It's not left tackle. It's not tailback. The quarterback is the field general. Think beyond the passing game to the sum total of what is expected of a quarterback, and you'll realize that if he is bad, the offense is bad, the team doesn't score points and wins are hard to come by. End of story.

There is a great burden on Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace to be not just capable passers, but the veteran offensive backbone that the Browns have lacked for most of the past decade.

Injuries are a fact of life in sports, and football and particular. On the pro level, the sport features extremely large and fast men slamming into each other at high speeds. Knees buckle, ligaments rupture, bones break. Every team has a busy medical and training staff.

You simply hope that your team's best players don't suffer serious, season-ending and career-jeopardizing injuries. The Browns haven't had a lot of luck in dodging those types of injuries.

On both fronts, there are reasons to be encouraged, however.

Delhomme is under the microscope for a woeful stretch of football that began with a playoff game in January 2009 and continued throughout the following season, when he threw eight touchdowns and 18 interceptions, paving the way for his release by the Panthers. At the very least, 35-year-old Delhomme has a great deal of incentive to prove that he's not washed up.

Behind him, Wallace's combination of arm strength and leg speed make him useful as a change-of-pace option under center, and if necessary, step in as the starting QB.

During training camp, the Browns had some fairly typical injury problems to deal with. Dave Zastudil is done for the year with a recurring knee injury. D'Qwell Jackson has his second chest muscle injury in as many years. Rookie Montario Hardesty is having knee problems, much like he did for three years in college. But so far, it's nothing that most other NFL teams aren't going through.

The Browns roster is built up to the point that there shouldn't be large-scale questions about the talent level of the team. National scribes are quick to assess the Browns roster as thin on talent. They are thin on elite talent. They don't have a lot of star power. But they do have talent in the form of young prospects and role players. A roster like this could become a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.

To succeed, this Browns team has to assume the role that so many Cleveland teams have to play -- that of the gritty, overachieving underdog. Nobody expects Cleveland to make much of a splash this year. The AFC North is a beast, with three other teams that all, rightfully, have Super Bowl aspirations. The Browns could show a great deal of improvement this year and still end up in last place with little more than a one or two-game improvement over last year's 5-11 mark. The schedule, which also includes dates with the Saints, Patriots and Jets, could simply be that difficult.

But it's also not unrealistic -- fanciful, maybe, but not unrealistic -- to envision a scenario in which the Browns show the backbone and fortitude that they so often haven't exhibited in years past, snag a few surprise wins and end up at 10-6 or 9-7.

It does start with the tone set by Mike Holmgren in the president's chair. It has a lot to do with the personnel decisions made by Tom Heckert, and how Eric Mangini and his staff cultivate the roster handed to them by the front office. It all matters.

But if you can assume the experience of Holmgren and Heckert is bound to make the team better on a foundational level, if you can assume that Jerome Harrison will continue to be fast, Shaun Rogers will continue to be big and Josh Cribbs will continue to be a great playmaker, then there are only a few hinges upon which this season will pivot. There actually isn't a lot standing between 5-11 and typical Cleveland pessimism, and 10-6 with rampant optimism.

Can Delhomme have a bounce-back year in a new setting, and can the starters around him stay off the injured reserve list?

It could be that simple, or it could be that complicated.

New design

After five and a half years, it was time for something different, which is why you're now looking at a Blogger customized template. The background photo is a Blogger stock photo. The huge bright blue photo under the title is mine. It's a little too big, but an attention-grabber none the less.