Monday, December 30, 2013

Only the names change

In Cleveland, we've become experts at identifying failed football leadership. A decade and a half of being exposed to it will tend to have that effect.

Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi, you fail. Please exit to the right, and continue collecting your paychecks for the ensuing five-odd years, per the particulars outlined in your lucrative contracts.

But ... They've only been on the job a year -- this is still a work in progress, right?

No. They've failed. It might not become evident until a few more losing seasons have accumulated and they actually receive their walking papers, but they've failed. This regime will end like all the others. With the main characters sitting at home, collecting ownership's money to not coach, not general manage and not preside, and the Browns once again looking for the same answers that have eluded the franchise for 15 years and counting.

They failed to hire a big-name coach last winter. Then they hired Rob Chudzinski, which they now admit was a failure by firing him after one season.

The firing itself was the result of a failure to step back and look at the situation from a global standpoint. Obsessed with the win-now culture that has infested the NFL, angered by the team's late-season swoon, and perhaps possessing delusions that the same types of big-name coaches that turned the Browns down a year ago will now beat a path to Berea, Banner and Lombardi -- with the blessing of Jimmy Haslam -- gave Chud the quick hook five hours after finishing a 4-12 rookie season as an NFL head coach.

That would be a 4-12 season in which Chud was forced to start three different quarterbacks due to injuries and ineffectiveness. A season in which the starting tailback was traded three weeks in, and replaced with a rotation of has-beens and never-will-be's.

A season in which Greg Little and Davone Bess couldn't hang onto the ball, and even budding star Josh Gordon had his share of drops.

A season in which Gordon didn't even know if he'd be a Brown all year, until the trade deadline safely passed in October.

A season that, in spite of all that, was actually more competitive than the final record indicates. The Browns were flat-out robbed of a win in New England by poor (or biased?) officiating. They held late leads against the Jaguars and Bears before losing at the end. They put a scare into the then-undefeated Chiefs before losing by six points at always-hostile Arrowhead Stadium. They held halftime leads in each of their first six games.

Yes, there are no moral victories in the NFL. But Chud's perpetual-underdog team competed most weeks. They had their low points, to be sure -- the 41-20, Week 11 loss to Cincinnati started the second-half slide, and counts as the worst loss of the season in terms of both margin and impact -- but Chud's teams competed, and with this roster, what more can any rational observer expect?

Reading between the lines, what does that say about the rationality of the executives currently running the ship?

By firing Chud after 16 games, Banner and his crew wanted to send a message: no excuses, no compromises and total accountability. Perhaps in their ivory ego-tower, they truly believe that's what they did.

But the message they really sent was all about their willingness to toss their coach under the bus, deflect criticism from the shortcomings of the roster they assembled, and their lack of desire to pay anything more than lip service to the ideals of continuity and stability. You know, those odd, foreign principles that have seemed to help out organizations like the Patriots, Steelers and Ravens over the years.

And they didn't just send that message to the ticket-buying public. They sent it, loud and clear, to the guys in the locker room. Veteran team leaders Joe Thomas and D'Qwell Jackson were among the most vocal in their criticism of the firing.

When a free agent is considering contract offers, and he wants to get a real-deal picture of what the organization is really like, do you think he's going to take Banner's or Lombardi's words at face value? Of course not. He's going to get in touch with the likes of Thomas and Jackson. And what are they going to say? Let your imagination run wild with that one.

The Browns have their own free agents, too. Most notably, Pro Bowler Alex Mack and Pro Bowl alternate T.J. Ward. If Banner is arrogant enough to think a better coach can do more with his roster, he's probably arrogant enough to think he can replace Mack and Ward through the draft. So maybe this is a moot point. But if the Browns did want to try and re-sign either, the next Browns coach will be Coach No. 4 for Mack (drafted in 2009) and Coach No. 3 for Ward (drafted in 2010).

New coaches mean new playbooks and new coaching styles, which are long, difficult, macro-level adjustments in the world of football. You probably couldn't blame them if they preferred to continue their career in a place with a bit more consistency -- or any consistency, for that matter.

Everything about Chud's dismissal reeks of a startling disconnect in the minds of club leadership between how they perceive things and how things really are. Even measured by the long, sorry, limp, tepid, foul, rancid precedent that the Browns have set since 1999, this firing is bad medicine.

This won't end well. But that probably depends on your definition of "well." If "well" means 18 holes of golf at an exclusive country club while you're cashing seven-figure checks to not work for the team that fired you before your contract was up, "well" is actually quite well.

If "well" means enduring a deepening spiral of loss-splattered football misery that only seems to get worse no matter how bad it already is, well … you'd have Cleveland.

That's the great thing about being a pro sports executive. Even if you fall flat on your face and damage your team for years to come, eventually it just becomes somebody else's problem. And you always come out smelling like greenbacks in the end. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Waiting on Waiters

Dion Waiters is the widget of the Cavs roster. If he were a mechanical device, he’d have a lot of lights and buttons that indicate he can do many different things. But he didn’t come with any type of instruction sheet, so you’re left to randomly press buttons, hoping to find the sequence that powers him up.

What can he do? Does he fit your needs? If so, where? All legitimate questions that don’t really have any solid answers through the first 100 or so games of Waiters’ professional career.

He came off the bench in his two years at Syracuse. The Cavs drafted him fourth overall in 2012 because, despite the fact that he was relegated to a sixth-man role, his scoring talent was apparent. Perhaps envisioning a better version of the Mo Williams and Delonte West backcourt that helped power the Cavs to 66 and 61 wins seasons in LeBron’s final two years here, the Cavs wanted to pair Waiters with Kyrie Irving in the starting backcourt.

Much like Williams and West, Irving and Waiters were both a tad undersized, but both could create their own shots, and both are adept passers. A backcourt comprised of a pair of point guard/shooting hybrids could be very versatile and very dangerous.

But there is only one ball. Only one player can create the shot per possession. Kyrie, being the anointed franchise player, would essentially get the right of first refusal, forcing Waiters to play off the ball.

It didn’t really work. Waiters never seemed comfortable taking kickout passes, curling off screens, and all of the other catch-and-shoot rhythm play that is expected of a shooting guard. Last year, he finished second among rookies in scoring behind Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, but his 14.7 PPG came on 13.4 often poorly-selected shots per game. He converted 41 percent of his shots as a rookie, but most of his converted shots were around the basket. He shot 31 percent from three-point range, exhibiting no ability to stretch the floor – a must-have skill for any starting shooting guard in the NBA.

This season didn’t begin much better. As the Cavs careened to a 4-12 start, Waiters continued to struggle in his starting role. Then the rumors started. He reportedly wanted out of Cleveland. He allegedly accused Kyrie and Tristan Thompson of playing “buddy ball” with each other, leaving him comparatively starved for touches and shots.

But as Mike Brown spent November searching frantically for anything that would stop the bleeding, one of the moves he made was perhaps one that was a year in the making: He shuffled the starting lineup. C.J. Miles became the starting shooting guard, and Waiters moved to the same sixth-man bench role that made him a top-five draft pick at Syracuse.

So determined was Brown to keep Waiters in that role that when Miles went down with a calf injury, Matthew Dellavedova – who will never be confused with an actual starting shooting guard – started in his place.

Waiters reportedly wasn’t happy with the move – who wants to lose their starting gig? – but since moving to the bench, the progress has been palpable. Since Nov. 27, Waiters has notched five 20-point games and a 30-point game. There have still been a few clunked in the mix (1/10 FG and 3 PTS versus the Clippers), but the good games have outpaced the bad games.

Waiters is playing with more confidence, even swagger at times. But even as Waiters starts to show signs of developing into a productive player, there are still a circus’ worth of elephants in the room.

Did the Cavs really burn a No. 4 pick on a guy who was destined for a bench role? If Waiters needs the ball and Kyrie needs the ball, can they ever play together in the same backcourt and be successful? Even with the renewal of hope spawned by his recent uptick in performance, will we simply come to the conclusion that Waiters is a mismatched part in Cleveland, and bound for the trading block?

It is an odd development to have a high level of redundant scoring in the backcourt – Jarrett Jack can also chuck it – while small forward languishes, occupied by the underwhelming trio of Alonzo Gee, Earl Clark and Anthony Bennett. But scoring is scoring, no matter where it comes from. And with a roster that appears to finally be stabilizing itself after a November of horrendous turmoil and blowout losses, now might not be the time to answer the questions regarding Waiters’ future in Cleveland.

If the players on this team can continue settling into their roles, absorb Brown’s complicated defense well enough to execute it at a reasonably high level and score enough points to win more than they lose, the best course of action might be to let the Jell-O set for the remainder of this season.

It’s a far cry from several weeks ago, when it looked like a transformational trade was the only thing that might save the season.

Chris Grant will almost certainly address the small forward position this coming summer, one way or another. And if the Cavs can sign or trade for a quality scoring forward, Waiters’ presence as a bench scorer could add first-string scoring punch to the second unit – a luxury that a lot of teams don’t have.

A fan base like Cleveland’s, starved for a championship – and recently, just starved for winning seasons and playoff appearances – doesn’t want to hear about works in progress. Fans don’t want to hear front-office buzzwords like “process” and “upside.” But that’s exactly what the Cavs are. They’re a work in progress, and all the holes and roles won’t be completely filled or defined this season. Even if the Cavs roar back to claim a top-four seed in the weak Eastern Conference, all the questions won’t be answered.

That includes how to best utilize the undefined widget that is Waiters. Starting shooting guard? Backup combo guard? Trade bait? Those questions will have to be answered at some point. But not right now.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The tackle that ruined a season

I generally don’t like to dwell on the past.

What would have happened if Earnest Byner hadn’t been stripped of the ball? If Jose Mesa had gotten a ground ball from Charles Johnson or Craig Counsell? If Joel Skinner had sent Kenny Lofton?

It didn’t happen. That alternate reality will never exist. So what’s the point in lamenting it? We have what we have, so let’s make the best of it.

Yet, in those quiet moments of lucidity, I can’t help but dwell on a small portion of the recent past. I can’t help but wonder what might have come of this Browns season if Brian Hoyer’s knee had stayed intact.

Heading into that Thursday, Oct. 3 game against Buffalo, Hoyer had been the freshest breath of air Browns fans had experienced in six years. The Browns didn’t look like world-beaters, but they certainly resembled a confident, competent NFL team since he had taken the reins and led the team to a come-from-behind Week 3 win at Minnesota.

Hoyer had been the third-string quarterback on the depth chart. Rob Chudzinski surprised a lot of people when he vaulted over second-stringer Jason Campbell to give Hoyer the starting nod after Brandon Weeden had injured his thumb in a second-week loss to Baltimore.

But Hoyer quickly made Chud look like a genius. He seemed to be a hand-in-glove fit to Chud’s offense. He made quick reads, quick throws, moved the ball and scored points.

In the span of two weeks, the Browns went from resembling their same old sorry selves to resembling a team that could make some noise in the AFC playoff picture.

That Thursday night game capped a crescendo of a week for Cleveland sports, after the Indians had clinched a playoff berth that Sunday, and hosted their first playoff game since 2007 that Wednesday night – the first playoff game Cleveland had hosted in any sport since May 2010.

The Indians lost under the national prime-time lights, but the following night, the Browns put the city right back under the national spotlight. And this time, we had a football team worth showcasing.

Then, barely five minutes into the game, Hoyer was flushed out of the pocket. He scampered for the first-down marker near the sideline, but his knee buckled as Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso tackled him, rolling over him in the process.

The initial reports said Hoyer might have a ligament sprain in the knee. Maybe he’d only miss a few weeks. Then we heard he might have torn a ligament. Maybe a partial tear? Maybe, hoping against hope, it wasn’t a season-ending injury?

But the next day, we found out he had torn his ACL and was done for the year. And all the air went out of the Browns season. All of the losing, negative inertia that has provided the wind for this franchise’s sails for the past decade and a half was jostled back into place. We were destined for more of the same old Browns.

It was more devastating than your typical season-ending injury to a key Browns player. It was more devastating because the various Browns leadership regimes have been on a 14-year quest to solve the quarterback position. Nothing has dogged this franchise more than poor QB play, and Hoyer, at the very least, offered a glimpse of what this team could be when not sabotaged by lousy QB play.

Hoyer’s two games and change as the Browns starting QB was a much-needed corrective lens that allowed us to view the rest of the team in a realistic light. When healthy, motivated and not assailed by the endemic “here we go again” losing culture that has anchored itself in Berea, the Browns are actually a decent football team. They’re not ready to contend for a Super Bowl by any means, but they have quality talent at some key positions.

This is not a barren roster. But it’s a roster that is going to play well below its potential if it has a low-performing QB at the helm.

Now that we’ve seen it, it’s encouraging and agonizing at the same time. We’ve seen what the Browns can be, but we’ve also seen how much it hinges on finding a quarterback who can play the position at a relatively high level. And we’re not talking Tom Brady or Peyton Manning here. Hall of Fame credentials aren’t necessary. We’re talking about someone of the Andy Dalton class. Just good, not necessarily great.

If Hoyer had stayed healthy, maybe we’d have found a solution at quarterback. Maybe the Browns brain trust wouldn’t feel the need to roll the dice on drafting a QB in a 2014 class that is being touted as one for the ages, but looks kind of iffy when you get down to it. Marcus Mariota’s decision to stay at Oregon next season isn’t helping that cause.

If Hoyer had stayed healthy, maybe the Browns are 7-5 and in the thick of the AFC wild card race, instead of 4-8 and playing out the string. You’d certainly have to think that the Browns could have beaten the Lions and Jaguars with better QB play. Maybe they could have stunned the Chiefs, who only defeated them by six points. Maybe one of those divisional blowouts against the Bengals and Steelers turn out differently with better QB play buoying the confidence of the entire team.

If Hoyer had stayed healthy, maybe this would have been a season of real progress, if not a playoff berth. Instead, we get the usual doses of opacity and uncertainty as the Browns stagger toward free agency and the draft, to be followed by minicamps, until we arrive at training camp at the end of next July. Hoyer will be there. Who knows what shape he and his knee will be in after nearly a year of rehab, but he’ll be there to compete with whomever the Browns trade for, draft or sign in an effort to create a quarterback competition in camp.

And we’ll begin the cycle all over again, hoping to find answers where there have only been questions, fortune where there has only been misfortune, wins where there have only been losses.