Saturday, July 28, 2012

Time for a change

In 1995, Art Modell used Al Lerner's private jet as a modern-day Appomattox Court House, signing the papers that ceded Cleveland's football franchise to Baltimore.

Lerner was not an active participant in facilitating Modell's move, but he was guilty by association, guilty of providing the house where the murder took place.  Since Lerner's plane was involved in Modell's escape 17 years ago, the Lerner family has been star-crossed in their football pursuits.

In 1998, Al Lerner used his vast wealth as a self-made billionaire to purchase the replacement franchise for the one that departed Cleveland on his jet. He outbid Larry and Charles Dolan, prior to Larry Dolan purchasing the Indians in 2000. From the outset, Lerner spared no expense in trying to give the new Browns everything money could buy. He lured flamboyant executive and Younstown native Carmen Policy away from the 49ers to run the show. Policy brought Dwight Clark with him as his handpicked general manager.

Policy talked a good game, but his organization-building acumen was found to be sorely lacking. Clark was outed as a clueless roster architect. Chris Palmer, their coaching hire, lasted all of two seasons and five victories.

Butch Davis took over, with a resume that included a stint as an assistant on Super Bowl winners in Dallas and as the coach who rebuilt the University of Miami football program as a national power. He led the Browns to their first competitive seasons -- a 7-9 record in 2001 and a 9-7 record with a playoff appearance in 2002, but much like Clark before him, he was exposed as a lousy drafter and an even worse locker-room manager. He was gone by 2005.

It was during Davis' tenure that Al Lerner died of brain cancer. His 2002 passing paved the way for his son, Randy, to take over the family businesses, including the Browns. Randy was a media-shy legacy owner from a privileged background. The rare media exposure he allowed seemed to indicate the junior Lerner was a quiet, intelligent person who was a seriously devoted Browns fan and seriously wanted the team to win.

The trouble is, he wasn't much of a football fan overall, and he wasn't much of a leader. With his personal interest leaning toward British soccer and a lack of desire to oversee the Browns organization on a daily basis, Lerner kept looking for the organizational guru who could take the burden of the Browns off his hands.

Phil Savage. Romeo Crennel. Eric Mangini. Mike Holmgren. They all came to Cleveland with impressive resumes. The first three went the way of Clark and Davis, exposed as poor matches for their roles. Holmgren has thus far overseen 5-11 and 4-12 seasons, and the clock is ticking.

It all doesn't really seem to make sense, given the resumes of the men who have come through Cleveland, tasked with rescuing the once-proud Cleveland Browns name. They came from key positions on successful franchises such as the 49ers, Cowboys, Ravens, Patriots and Packers. They have all failed miserably to this point.

It's as if the Lerner family has been cursed with some kind of anti-Midas touch when it comes to football. Millions upon millions of dollars spent on trying to turn the Browns around, and the net result has been a endless parade of last-place finishes and turnover at key positions.

Which is why the news this past week that Lerner is apparently on the verge of selling the Browns to a group led my Pilot Travel Centers president Jimmy Haslam III is bittersweet.

Selling the Browns before completing a turnaround had to be smong the toughest decision Lerner has ever had to make. Lerner doesn't want his family's name -- associated with success and philanthropy in other arenas -- to go down in history as failure on the NFL stage. He doesn't want his father's legacy to bear the scars. But year after year of losing, year after year of best-laid plans going awry, takes its toll.

In an interview with Scene Magazine last year, Lerner expressed a desire to see the Browns' rebuild through to completion, but "At some point, if things never change, you have to look at yourself and decide if you're the man for the job,"

If this sale happens, Lerner apparently answered that question for himself. In terms of heart and hope, he is the right man for the job. In terms of execution and involvement, he is sorely lacking. The first two qualities make you a good fan. The latter two qualities make you a good executive.

Haslam will become a man of increasing interest in the coming weeks, barring something slamming the brakes on the sale. He's the son of Pilot founder Jim Haslam Jr., who was an offensive lineman on the University of Tennessee's 1951 national championship team. The Haslam family -- which also includes Jim's son and Jimmy's brother Bill Haslam, the current governor of Tennessee -- have donated millions of dollars to the university and are highly active in community causes in their hometown of Knoxville and throughout eastern Tennessee.

Browns fans have a degree of pre-emptive suspicion about Haslam, who has been a minority owner of the Steelers since 2008 and a professed "1,000-percent Steeler fan." Fortunately, we're talking about business, not rooting interests. The reported sale price of the Browns could top $900 million. It's highly doubtful that Haslam would lay down that kind of money with a nefarious ulterior motive aimed at increasing the Steelers' already-vast competitive advantage. Saboteurs make bad businessmen.

Could Haslam move the Browns? The Browns have a lease with the city that runs through 2028. But leases can be broken through litigation and compromise. Modell did it. Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest media market, has been without an NFL team since 1996. It could be a tempting target for an ownership regime that has no ties to Cleveland.

But there is nothing in the Browns' current situation that would indicate that they're ripe for a move. Their stadium is still modern and they sell out every home game despite the poor on-field product. Holmgren told the media on Friday that Lerner asked for and received an assurance that the team would not be moved. That's about all the evidence and assurance you can ask to receive, short of getting it directly from Haslam. If and when this sale becomes final, Haslam will appear at a press conference, where the subject is sure to come up.

Who stands to risk the most from an ownership change? It could be Holmgren himself, and his handpicked staff. Haslam will be eager to make his mark as an NFL owner, and if the Browns once again disappoint on the field this season, the odds of Haslam cleaning house and bringing in his own people go way up.

As it is, Holmgren was brought in to serve as the organizational figurehead because Lerner is so camera-shy. With a new owner, a new dynamic develops with Holmgren, and that might be enough to hasten Holmgren's exit from the organization.

You should be more concerned about the futures of GM Tom Heckert and head coach Pat Shurmur anyway. They are the primary football decision-makers. It is within the owner's rights to hire his own people, but it would still be another chapter in a Browns story frought with instability and turnover. The revolving door has to stop at some point.

There is always uncertainty with any change at the highest levels of an organization. But in this case, the uncertainty of what Haslam brings to the table is probably preferable to the known quantity of the Lerner family. No one wants to see Randy Lerner go off gently into that good night as a football failure. But he and his dad had 13 years to get this right, and they never did. It is time for someone else to come aboard and captain the ship. It has been time for quite a while.

Monday, July 02, 2012

The guessing game

Mock drafts, like NCAA Tournament brackets, have been swept up in the fantasy sports culture. If your team is picking high in the draft, no matter the sport, you probably spent the weeks and months leading up to the draft reading reports and analyzing mock drafts until your bloodshot eyes scream for Visine.

As a result, you know exactly who the experts say should be selected at each pick. You've identified the best and the best of the rest, and you will become very testy if your team reaches outside of that consensus-designated boundary.

For the 2012 NBA Draft, the national basketball pundits had identified Kentucky forward Anthony Davis as the single biggest prize, a deadbolt-lock to go first overall. After Davis, they had identified a group of five other prospects as suitable selections for the teams that followed -- including the Cavaliers, picking at No. 4.

So we in Cleveland set our sights on a small selection of prospects and made up our minds that we'd be happy -- in varying degrees, depending on who you're talking to -- with any member of that group. If the Cavs took Kentucky forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Florida guard Bradley Beal, North Carolina forward Harrison Barnes, Connecticut center Andre Drummond or Kansas forward Thomas Robinson, some of us would have been less thrilled than others depending on the specific selection, but we could at least convince ourselves that the Cavs got one of the best players in the draft, and had secured a major building block for the future.

Then came draft night. And we found out that Cavs GM Chris Grant wipes his nose on mock drafts.

A year after causing a stir by reaching to select Tristan Thompson with the No. 4 pick, Grant did it again by reaching to select sophomore Syracuse guard Dion Waiters.

A report by writer and former Cavs beat reporter Brian Windhorst said the Cavs had whittled the No. 4 pick down to two players -- Kidd-Gilchrist and Waiters. When the Bobcats selected Kidd-Gilchrist with the second pick, the Cavs' decision was made for them.

The Cavs' front office is apparently very high on Waiters -- a prospect who granted no workouts to individual teams, possibly because he already had a promise from a lottery team. Whatever information the Cavs were able to amass on Waiters came from game film and the NBA draft combine in Chicago last month.

Whatever the Cavs saw sold them on Waiters' NBA potential, not just as a competent starter, but a first-option scorer on a winning team -- in other words, a legitimate star player. A player who was worthy of the fourth overall pick.

But convincing a fan based that was primed for names such as Barnes, Kidd-Gilchrist and Beal is going to take a bit more work. The Cavs are asking the fan base to take a leap of faith and see the star guard waiting to emerge from the shell of a backup combo guard, which was Waiters' role at Syracuse. A backup combo guard who, at 6'-4" and 215 pounds, is shorter and thinner than the prototypical NBA shooting guard.

As a fan, you flash back to Jim Paxson referring to Dajuan Wagner as "Allen Iverson with muscles," then try to swat that memory away. Do the likes of Iverson and Dwyane Wade prove that shorter combo guards can succeed in the NBA, or are they supremely-talented exceptions, thereby proving that shorter guards are indeed fighting an uphill battle against bigger, stronger competition?

Waiters may not have started, but at 24 minutes per game as a sophomore, he did play starter's minutes. He averaged 12.6 points per game, which projects to about 19 PPG in 36 minutes -- a more-than-respectable output for a realistic NBA workload. So he can score. And, heck, Wagner would likely have become a productive offensive force in the NBA had his career not been derailed by a severe intestinal disorder. Talent is talent.

But there's that nagging issue of Waiters' lack of size, and the fact that he very nearly brought Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim to his wit's end as a freshman with his utter refusal to play defense. Waiters' attitude reportedly improved as a sophomore, but his effort and competency at the defensive end bears watching.

It could be that the Cavs drafted a super-sub. Waiters might find himself hopelessly overmatched at the defensive end by bigger, stronger NBA two-guards. His NBA calling might be the exact same job he held in college -- coming off the bench for a quick-burst shot of offense against the other team's backups.

It's a necessary role on a winning team. If the offense stagnates, you need a player who can come into the game, take the ball and put it in the basket. It can force the other team to pull their backups and reinsert the starters sooner rather than later, which can work to your advantage later in games, and especially later in hard-fought playoff series.

If Waiters pans out as a new-generation Vinnie Johnson, the Cavs certainly could have done worse. But if a top-five pick yields a non-starter in any way, shape or form, it's a questionable use of resources.

After the Waiters pick, the news feeds were still churning with rumors that the Cavs were feverishly trying to make some kind of move. At first, we heard reports that they were still in hot pursuit of Harrison Barnes, selected at No. 7 by Golden State. Those rumors died off fairly quickly. But the Cavs did make a move.

At No. 17, they traded their three remaining picks -- Nos. 24, 33 and 34 -- to Dallas for the rights to North Carolina center Tyler Zeller. The pick was met with less criticism than the Waiters pick, but it still generated some controversy for those who thought three picks was too steep of a price to pay.

The Cavs, like most teams with fours pick, don't want to sign that many rookies at one time. Each NBA team can only carry 15 players, and teams as a general rule don't want almost a third of the roster occupied by rookies -- not even rebuilding teams like the Cavs.

It makes sense, then, to take your remaining picks and trade them for one player who you believe can make a real difference to your team. Zeller is a 7-footer who lacks girth, and might have a limited ability to pack on more muscle, but he is a polished four-year senior with a reputation for good post moves, a solid midrange jumper and a high basketball IQ.

Most of us probably would have been satisfied if the Cavs came out of last week's draft with one safe pick and one calculated-risk pick. The trouble is, most of us wanted the safe pick at 4 and the risky pick at 24. Instead, we got a roll of the dice at 4 and a trade-up for a safer pick at 17.

Myself, I really don't care if Chris Grant, Byron Scott and the rest of the Cavs' decision-makers walk to their own beat when it comes to building a roster. But the beat better lead to sweet music in May and June sometime in the foreseeable future.

Right now, all we have is a front office with a hard-to-decipher philosophy on drafting, and a fan base that can only scratch their heads, shrug their shoulders and do their best to try and trust that Grant and his cohorts know what they're doing.