Friday, December 31, 2010

A sad finish

The last time the Browns entertained the Pittsburgh Steelers at CBS in week 14 last season, they harassed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger all evening to the tune of eight sacks, 12 hits and numerous hurries in 40 dropbacks. In essence, they all but filleted Big Ben in a 13-6 victory that launched a four-game, end-of-the-season winning streak that probably saved Eric Mangini's job.

It also greased the skids for the defending Super Bowl champions, who failed to make the playoffs. Don't think for a minute that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin isn't reminding his team of that game on a daily basis this week as he prepares for Sunday's season closer against the Browns at CBS.

The big difference this season is the Steelers have already clinched a playoff spot. But they want a lot more because they sit atop the AFC North tied with Baltimore and own the tie-breaker, but have not clinched a first-week bye. And that is the incentive they have against the Browns, whose only incentive lately seems to be escaping with as few injuries as possible.

One would think Cleveland would love nothing better than to knock off the Steelers to garner a small measure of self respect as this disappointing season concludes. A loss to the Browns would tumble the Steelers to the No. 6 seed and send them on the road, probably against the New England Patriots in week two. They couldn't beat the Pats in Pittsburgh this season.

Let's see now . . . beat the Browns and secure the No. 2 seed, a first-round bye and home field advantage for at least one game, or lose to Cleveland and . . . well, you know the rest.

In other words, Sunday's game against the Browns will be like a playoff game for the Steelers. There's too much at stake to take the Browns lightly.

That's the motivation Big Ben and his crew will bring to Cleveland this weekend. As if avenging last season's loss in Cleveland wasn't motivation enough.

As for momentum, the Steelers own that, too, winning five of their last six games. The Browns, meanwhile, are staggering toward what most likely will be a finish exactly the opposite of last season's, having lost their last three games. A repeat of last season's 5-11 record also seems inevitable.

A quick look at the statistics reveals some interesting facts. For example, the Browns have allowed the third-fewest points in the AFC this season. Not bad for a 5-10 team. Then you notice the top two teams in that category are Pittsburgh, which has permitted 68 fewer points than the Browns, and Baltimore. The Steelers, in fact, lead the National Football League in that stat.

Stingy doesn't begin to describe the kind of defense Dick LeBeau runs in Pittsburgh. The older he gets, it seems, the better the Steelers play. His zone blitz scheme is now used by just about every NFL team.

That defense this season has created 22 fumble recoveries, 18 interceptions and 41 sacks. It has permitted just 20 touchdowns, a paltry five on the ground, and surrendered a measly 61 points in the last six games.

You run against Pittsburgh as effectively as you do against Baltimore. Translation: Not at all. The Steelers have yielded opponents just 961 rushing yards this season. That's 64 yards a game. And with Peyton Hillis hurting, it looks as though the Cleveland ground game will not be a major factor this week.

That means we're most likely going to find out how Colt McCoy, who threw for 281 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in week 6 against Pittsburgh, handles the Cleveland winter weather with his throws. His effort last week against Cincinnati turned into an abysmal failure. A strong-armed quarterback can make throws through the elements and McCoy, at least in that game, was anything but a strong-armed quarterback.

The Cleveland offense has struggled the last half of the season. In the last four games, it has produced just four touchdowns and 46 points total as it blunders toward the finish line.

Cleveland's defense, meanwhile, is running on fumes. Due to the inefficiency of the offense, it has spent way too much time on the field. And it will face a Pittsburgh offense that dismantled that defense in week 6.

In that one, you'll recall, Roethlisberger came off his season-openng four-game suspension, shook off the rust almost immediately and crafted a 257-yard, three-touchdown game in a 28-10 victory. And he wasn't sacked once.

Big Ben has 15 TD passes and only five picks in his 11 outings this season, but his beaten-up offensive line has allowed 44 sacks. The big guy from Findlay has hit the ground 32 times in those 11 games.

So there's hope the Browns can muster a pass rush -- now that would be a novelty -- sometime during the afternoon. At 5-10, there's no sense in playing not to lose.

If the Browns are, indeed, playing for Mangini's job, an aggressive game plan on both sides of the ball would be in order. One can only hope, can't one?

Adding it all up, there can be only one conclusion. The Steelers gain the No. 2 seed in the AFC, the Browns close out the season with a four-game losing streak and Mangini's job clearly hangs in the balance. Make it:

Pittsburgh 28, Browns 10 (and it'll be a defensive touchdown)

Tressel's big gamble

Let's see if I've got this straight. The NCAA suspends five Ohio State football players, including four high-profile starters, for doing something against NCAA rules and suspends them for the first five games next season. But it rules all of them can play against Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl game next week.

Raises the antennae of suspicion more than just a little bit. But OK, the NCAA is the NCAA and no one can quite figure out how and why the so-called august ruling body of collegiate athletics makes some of its bizarre decisions. Just another head-scratching verdict by the NCAA.

Then came a report that the executive director of the Sugar Bowl, after discovering such OSU stars as Terrelle Pryor, Devier Posey, Dan Herron and Mike Adams were among the guilty parties, lobbied long and hard (i.e. begged) the NCAA (presumably) to wait until next season to begin the suspensions. Without Pryor, Posey and Herron, the OSU offense is, well, exceedingly mediocre. And that's being kind.

OK, said the NCAA. We understand the OSU-Arkansas game won't be nearly as competitive without those players. So why not. Suspensions start next season. Case closed.

And now, Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel reveals he extracted a promise from the guilty parties to return to school next season in exchange for playing in the Sugar Bowl game. If you choose not to return and play next season, you won't suit up against Arkansas. Make your choice. The players took the coach up on his deal and will go against the Razorbacks.

It seems Tressel, normally a straight shooter, has developed a weak spot, all in the name of winning. Of course he wants Pryor at quarterback, Herron running the ball and Posey catching it. Why wouldn't he? They are his three best players on offense. The Buckeyes wouldn't stand much of a chance against Arkansas without them. So he decided to deal.

I might be way off here, but that little arrangement he struck with his star players smacks of either coercion, bribery or extortion. Perhaps all three or a combination thereof. It also smacks of desperation.

So now, Tressel enters the Sugar Bowl game with a full complement of artillery on offense. And he very well might win the game as a result. But what if those players who took the deal decide to renege? What if they see stars and dollar signs circling around them come April when the National Football League college draft takes place?

That's a scenario Tressel is gambling won't eventuate. If it does, however, and Pryor, Posey and Herron (and maybe Adams) bolt for the riches of professional football, the OSU coach will have learned a valuable lesson.

Never trust your players as much as they trust you.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Beyond the pale

OK, this has gone too far. And we've got Tucker Carlson of Fox News to thank for it.

Carlson, who should know better, has started flames on two landscapes with strident remarks featuring President Obama and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. He has gotten the attention of the political community and sports world with words he some day might regret uttering.

During a diatribe the other night while guest-hosting a show on the Fox News Channel, Carlson said, "I'm a Christian. I've made mistakes myself. I believe fervently in second chances, but Michael Vick killed dogs and he did [it] in a heartless and cruel way. And I think personally he should have been executed for that. He wasn't. But the idea that the President of the United States would be getting behind someone who murdered dogs [is] kind of beyond the pale."

Carlson, who couldn't hold jobs as a talk show host on CNN and MSNBC, launched the attack initially because the president telephoned Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie recently and congratulated him on giving Vick a second chance. On that point, I would agree with Carlson.

The president, who has consistently decried what Vick did, should stick to politics. It's great that he's a sports fan. But he's got much more to be concerned about than Vick receiving a second chance. Lots of people get second chances and take advantage of them. They don't receive calls from the president.

It's one thing to congratulate a team for winning a championship. Quite another to single out a player because he has made a nice comeback from serving time in prison.

Vick has been with the Eagles for almost two seasons now. Why did it take so long for the president to make his call? Why didn't he do it last season? Perhaps it's because Vick was a minor role player last season. This season, he's playing at an MVP level and eventually will recover most of the millions he lost while behind bars. Thus the call.

However, Carlson's attack on Vick was unwarranted and unnecessary. If it was his way of attacking the president, he handled it in an awkward, amateurish and foolishly unwise manner. The unfortunate aspect of it is there are those who hear his words and agree with him.

No question that what Vick did was reprehensible, unconscionable. But execution? If Carlson was going for shock value, he hit the bull's-eye. But it also was blatantly irresponsible.

Now I'm a political person and I lean both ways. I consider myself an independent who wishes a pox on both political parties. But this one clearly crossed the line.

Carlson called it beyond the pale. You bet it is. Now he should look in the mirror and see the reason why. Then give himself a second chance to right this wrong with regard to Vick.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Graveyard whistling

Well, well, well. Eric Mangini has picked up a couple of staunch supporters in the Browns' locker room as his job security hangs precariously.

Cornerback Sheldon Brown and fullback Lawrence Vickers have the coach's back despite a 5-10 season that has seen the club blow numerous opportunities for a far better record. None of that seems to matter to Brown and Vickers, though.

"I have then utmost respect for him," Brown told the Cleveland media. "I can't say anything negative about him,. You may find someone else, but I can't. He has treated me like a man from day one. He has all the intangibles. He learned from the best (Bill Belichick)."

And those intangibles are? Brown didn't elaborate.

Chimed in Vickers: "I love Mangini. He's a good guy, so I want him back. If not, I can't do anything about it. Like he tells us, life goes on. We want to keep fighting for our coach. That's the type of coach he is. Hey, he coaches us to finish and that's what we're trying to do."

Misguided thoughts? Or perhaps the thoughts players reacting defensively when their coach is attacked. Then again, this could be a case of Brown and Vickers saying the right thing. No sense in trashing the coach now, not with just one game left. It's possible they're lobbying for their jobs next season no matter who the coach is.

"Obviously, (Mangini) knows the plan," continued Brown. "For us, it's just going out and executing the plan. It's not his fault when we give up touchdown passes. It's not his fault when we throw interceptions. It's not his fault when we fumble. The players control that."

Then fire the players. If that's Brown's rationale, then coaches should never get fired. Someone has to be held responsible for the players' performance. One of the head coach's jobs is putting players in a position to succeed. Has Mangini done that? Look at a the record, guys. It's nothing of which to be proud.

With all due respect to Brown and Vickers, who play the game the right way, maybe they haven't looked at the standings lately. The Browns have played 15 games and won five. They have not played good football since a four-game stretch in the middle of the season. That is totally unacceptable.

All that reflects on the head coach. No way can I prove it, but if Mike Holmgren had coached the Browns this season, there's no way they would be 5-10 at this point. Moot point, but you catch my drift.

Again, someone must be held responsible. And in the buck-stops-here world of the National Football League, that leads to only one place. That place is not the locker room. It's the office of the head coach.

It's an office that just might have a new occupant next season despite what Brown and Vickers think of Mangini. If that's the case, look for the two Browns to embrace him just as they did the current coach.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Monday leftovers

One of Eric Mangini's weakest areas throughout the season has been time management. It reared its ugly little head again in Sunday's loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

Trailing, 13-7, and marching resolutely down the field with time winding down in the first half, the Browns reached the Baltimore 13 following a Colt McCoy scramble. With about about a minute left and all three timeouts, the Browns huddled as though it was the middle of the quarter.

There was no hurry up, no timeouts called, no spiking of the ball to stop the clock. Precious seconds ticked off and the Browns made no attempt to stop the clock. Why? Try to follow the logic of Mangini as he explained his strategy following the game.

"Get the points that are available from our perspective and not give their offense, which is a really good offense, a chance to go down and score," he said, giving the Ravens' offense much more credit than it deserved. That's called defensive coaching. And he has convinced at least two of his players it was the correct move.

"That's what we wanted to do from the sideline," McCoy said. "We weren't trying to not score. We took some shots at the end zone. But these guys, they're very good when you get down tight. Taking care of the ball, getting three points going into halftime without giving them the ball back, we have the momentum at that point."

Of course they weren't trying to not score. But what weren't they trying to not score? A touchdown or a field goal? And why were they so frightened of a Baltimore offense that had scored only 13 points to that point?

"It was good football," seconded offensive tackle Joe Thomas. Really? Playing conservatively for a field goal instead aggressively for a touchdown when you're in the red zone and down by six points is good football? No, that's defensive football. Conservative football. A pessimistic approach to football. Bad football.

In his first true test of playing in the capricious wind bowl known as Cleveland Browns Stadium in the winter, McCoy all but flunked. He found out you cannot float the football to your receivers as well in December as you can in October. Three interceptions later, lesson learned. Maybe. We'll find our this Sunday against Pittsburgh.

"Turnovers killed us today and most of it is on me," said McCoy after the game. "I've got to fix that. I've got to take care of the ball . . . As a quarterback, you have to go back and watch it. I'm going to play (the Ravens) for a long time."

Since the Ravens took away one of his favorite throws, the deep seam route, McCoy was forced to throw outside the numbers for the most part, revealing the weak part of his game. It remains to be seen whether his arm is strong enough to complete passes longer than 20-25 yards without floating them.

There is no question he has huddle presence and the team makes fewer mistakes when he's under center. But if teams continue to pack eight men in the box and dare him to throw, he's got to elevate his game and prove he can make all the throws necessary for them to back off.

Mangini has at least one supporter as his days seem numbered as the Browns' coach. "This team over the last two years just keeps getting better and better,'' said Ravens coach John Harbaugh following Sunday's game. "This is a legitimate football team. How many close games have they played in? You just go down and look at the scores and you’re like, ‘Oh my goodness.’

"Then they dominate two of the best teams in the league — the Patriots and the Saints. We haven’t been able to do that this year against that kind of competition. This football team is really, really good. They may have their quarterback. I think they’re really well-coached on both sides of the ball and special teams. We knew what we were in for coming in.”

The Browns keep getting better and better? In what way? After losing to Pittsburgh next Sunday, they'll be 10-22 under Mangini. That's better?

And how many close games have they played? Way too many. And how many of those close games have they lost? Way too many.

Yes, they dominated two of the best teams in the league. But what about those losses to Jacksonville, Buffalo and Cincinnati and the lucky victories against Carolina and Miami? Do those count, too?

If I were Harbaugh and had knocked off Mangini four times in four attempts the last two seasons, I'd want to make certain he stayed right where he was.

Peyton Hillis is tired and hurt. Perhaps its time to limit the big running back's involvement in the offense and see what Mike Bell can do. Bell looked good in the limited time he was in there against the Ravens. His slashing style contrasts nicely with Hillis' bull-like running.

Hillis, meanwhile, has crafted a very nice season that very well could be rewarded with a selection to the Pro Bowl. In the ultimate sign of respect, several Ravens said they voted for him. That includes Ray Lewis, an admirer of Hillis' running style. Not surprising since Lewis loves the mano y mano style of football.

Stream of consciousness: Where is the pass rush? On at least three occasions Sunday, Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco had time enough to order a five-course meal and eat it while waiting for one of his receivers to come open. . . . An onside kick to open the second half while trailing by only three points? Nothing wrong with the element of surprise, but the botched attempt by Phil Dawson is just another piece of the Murphy's Law jinx that hangs over this team. . . . The National Football League postponed a game in Philadelphia Sunday because of a blizzard. Wusses. I once sat through a game played in a blizzard at the old Municipal Stadium in the late 1950s. Ah, for the good old days when only lightning could postpone a game. . . . The right side of the Browns' offensive line and the flanks of the defensive line need a lot of help. Fortunately, finding players to fit in those areas is a strong suit of General Manager Tom Heckert Jr. . . . The way he has played the last two weeks, it seems as though the light has gone on for wide receiver Brian Robiskie. It'll be interesting to see if it carries over into next season.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Is there any doubt now?

Mike Holmgren had to have seen it sitting up in his ivory tower Sunday at CBS. He had to have seen his head coach once again mangle time management at the end of the first half. He had to have seen how little progress his team has made since a mid-season burst. He had to have seen better days ahead and the only way those days could get better is with a different head coach.

Watching his Browns fall once again to the Baltimore Ravens as the season becomes more embarrassing by the game, he has to know by now what he must do.

Randy Lerner brought Holmgren to Cleveland to straighten out his franchise. And with the Browns headed ingloriously toward the same 5-11 record they hung up last season with Mangini in charge, retention of the head coach does not appear to be on the team president's agenda. Or does it?

He's being very coy about his intentions once the season mercifully ends. He has not committed himself at this juncture, which is understandable. With only one game remaining, it doesn't make sense to cashier Mangini now.

But if he hasn't already made up his mind on Mangini after watching him in action for 15 games, then something is terribly wrong and, as stated last week, Lerner brought the wrong man to Cleveland.

It has been 12 years since the return of the Browns and the plight of professional football in Cleveland is approaching critical mass. It won't be long now -- for all we know, it might have even started already -- before fans will stop coming to games. They have better ways to spend their money. Losing year in and year can have that kind of an effect on those with a close emotional attachment to a team.

Losing most of the time turns into fan frustration. Frustration turns into anger. Anger turns into whatever anger turns into. And that leads to the greatest enemy to sports franchises -- apathy. Once that sets in, owners feel it where they can be hurt the most -- the bottom line.

Fans want winners. That's to be expected. The reason the Browns have been so successful at the gate the last dozen seasons despite their dismal record is because Cleveland fans fear losing the franchise again. They didn't deserve to lose the team originally back in 1995.

Cleveland is a great football town. It has a rich and tradition-laden history. That history and tradition have been stomped on for way too long. It has got to stop.

The city deserves a better football team. It doesn't have to win a championship, although that would be nice. After 12 seasons, fans would be thrilled first with a team that competes on a game-by-game basis and not just for one season. That's not asking too much. The suffering needs to stop. The bleeding needs to stop. And only Holmgren can make that happen.

If that's asking too much and putting too much pressure on him, then he needs to move on. Accepting the Cleveland job was a mistake. Otherwise, he needs to stand up and make the right move with regard to his head coach.

Makes no difference how much time Mangini has left on his contract. Makes no difference how much money he will be owed if he is fired. Lerner can afford to pay him off.

Most fans -- not all because there are still some Mangini zealots out there; not sure why -- most fans are tired of watching him play not to lose. They're tired of watching him fail to make adjustments as the game unfolds. They're tired of watching the same mistakes being made week in and week out. Shades of Romeo Crennel.

They're just plain tired of all the losing.

Eric Mangini is not a good head coach. He might be a very good defensive coordinator. But he lacks the essentials to be a good head coach. He has more than proven that in two excruciatingly long seasons.

Too often, his teams show up unprepared to compete. The Browns' performances in losses to Buffalo and Cincinnati more than buttress that argument.

They are 2-9 under Mangini (make that 2-10 with next Sunday's loss to Pittsburgh) against at the AFC North.

Truth be known . . . the Browns are a failed field-goal attempt (Carolina) and a dropped pick 6 (Miami) away from being 3-12 now instead of 5-10.

Mangini hung his coaching hat on the four-game winning streak the Browns finished with last season. This season, that hat rack better be nowhere in sight.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

So that's the reason

Now we have a pretty good idea why LeBron James decided to leave Cleveland.

The other day in Phoenix, James let his hair down, so to speak, when he strongly suggested the National Basketball Association would be more entertaining if subtracted teams. Get rid of them. Contraction.

He didn't use the term contraction. Not sure he even knows what the word means as far as the NBA is concerned. But that's exactly what he meant when he said the following:

"Hopefully, the league can figure out one way to go back to the '80s where you had three or four All-Stars, three or four superstars, three or four Hall of Famers on the same team. The league was great. It wasn't as watered down as it is (now)."

Then he went on to add, "Not saying let's take New Jersey out of the league. But hey, you guys aren't stupid. I'm not stupid. It would be great for the league."

As much as I detest what he did to Cleveland and the city's fans, and this is hard to admit because of that, James is absolutely right. The league is watered down. But it's been that way for years as it expanded well beyond its competitive capabilities. It has been stretched to the point where there is a noticeable imbalance of power.

There are basement dwellers, the middle-class teams that spin their wheels every season and go nowhere, the very good clubs that play just well enough to get into the playoffs, and the elite clubs that always seem to challenge for the title every year.

The NBA has become a status league. And James, to his credit, wants to see it change. The historian in him wants to go back and recreate the generation of the NBA that made it great.

And the only way to bring back the so-called glory days of the league would be to return to a more sane number of franchisees. Thirty is way too many. However, that's not going to happen. The NBA Players Association will see to that. The union wants to protect jobs, not see them disappear.

Franchises will not be subtracted. If they fail, they will be moved. It's that simple.

The ironic part of James' latest pronouncement is that by leaving Cleveland, he has become part of the problem. His absence is the main reason the Cavaliers own one of the worst records in the league. Without him, they are significantly less than mediocre. With him, they'd be a contender for the league championship.

So it will be interesting to see whether Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert decides to (a) hold on to a team that appears headed for many dark days, (b) sell the team at probably a loss or (c) move the team after taking a financial bath.

Whatever he does, he can trace the move back to when his superstar decided to make a little history himself. And now we know why.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

And the winner is . . .

When the Browns and Baltimore Ravens hook up Sunday at CBS. all signs point to a Ravens victory. And why not? The Ravens are 10-4; the Browns are 5-9. The Ravens are peaking as they strive to gain a first-round bye in the playoffs; the Browns are just playing out the season. The Ravens have numerous playmakers; the Browns have maybe one or two. The Ravens love playing for John Harbaugh; the Browns very well could be playing for Eric Mangini's job.

Just about everyone picks the Ravens to sweep the season series against the Browns. But it does seem strange that oddsmakers have made the Ravens just 3 1/2-point favorites. One would think that with so much on the line for the Ravens, not to mention the lousy football the Browns have played lately, the line would be at least seven or maybe even 10 points.

Perhaps the guys who set the odds took note of the first time these teams met in week 3 when the Browns actually held the lead early in the fourth quarter before the Ravens stormed back and won, 24-17. Perhaps they noted that Peyton Hillis shredded the Baltimore run defense for 144 yards and a touchdown.

But that was then and this is now.

Hillis, showing the effects of playing a full season for the first time in his brief professional football career, is beginning to wear down to the point where he longer is piling up those extra yards following initial contact. And his offensive line no longer provides easy holes through which he can blast.

The Ravens, who have uncharacteristically permitted five teams to score at least 23 points this season, were not ready for Hillis the first time around. Ray Lewis, the club's emotional leader, virtually promises there won't be anything Sunday that resembles a repeat.

"(As) our team's leader, it won't happen again," he told earlier this week. "I hope (the Browns) understand that. We're not coming in there to overlook them or anything and we definitely aren't coming in there to give them 100 yards again. So hopefully, they can buckle up their chin straps and do whatever you need to do, but we're definitely coming in to play a very physical football game."

Strong words to be sure, but Lewis is the quintessential back-up-his-boast player in the National Football League. Even at the advanced age (for pro football) of 35, the Ravens' linebacker plays like someone 10 years his junior. He leads the team in tackles with 124 and solo tackles with 90. He is almost always near the football. His sense of where the ball is is uncanny.

Of course, when you have a defensive line anchored by the peerless Haloti Ngata playing in front of you and keeping you clean, there is every reason to believe the future Hall of Famer still has a few more seasons left.

Although they have been torched by such teams as Buffalo and Houston, the Ravens' defense still has surrendered only 93.6 yards a game on the ground this season. Hillis' 144 yards represent 11% of the club's season total.

The pass rush, led by linebacker Terrell Suggs, has sacked opposing quarterbacks 27 times. It will be very interesting to watch Cleveland offensive tackle Joe Thomas battle Suggs throughout the afternoon. Wouldn't be surprised if the Browns go with a two tight-end offense and give Thomas, who has struggled on pass protection this season, some help.

One player the Browns did not see in the first game is free safety Ed Reed, who missed the first six games of the season with an injury. Since returning, the dangerous Reed, who has bedeviled the Browns over the years, has picked off four passes.

As for the offense, quarterback Joe Flacco has 23 TD passes and just eight interceptions. Three of those scoring tosses went to Anquan Boldin in week 3. But Flacco is a passer who can be reached, having been dropped 35 times. The big question is how often the Browns plan to blitz.

Don't expect Boldin to land in the end zone three more times Sunday. That's because Eric Wright, his primary victim in the first game, is on IR and rookie Joe Haden will now be his personal shadow.

Ray Rice, the Ravens' primary weapon on the ground, is just as dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield with 62 receptions. Last week against New Orleans, he totaled 223 yards from scrimmage, a season-high 153 on the ground. He'll be going against a Cleveland defense that has surrendered 380 yards on the ground the last two games.

And don't expect the Baltimore offense to regurgitate the football. It has lost only five fumbles this season.

So there are many good reasons to suggest the Ravens shouldn't have much of a problem against the Browns Sunday. But I'm going against that grain.

Call it a hunch. Call it crazy. Call it anything but rational thinking. But somehow, some way, I think the Browns are going to win this game. Why? Because the Ravens have played three highly emotional games in a row (Steelers, Texans and Saints) and are due for a letdown.

Maybe they'll come into CBS thinking they finally have a breather. The Browns aren't going anywhere but home in a couple of weeks, so they aren't capable of playing with anywhere near the intensity of the Ravens. And the Browns have clearly lacked intensity in their latest losses to Buffalo and Cincinnati.

And that's where the game will be won. The Ravens will arrive underestimating how the Browns will play; underestimating the pride factor playing in front of the home folks; underestimating how much of a difference Colt McCoy, who they have never faced, is to the attack.

And for those reasons, the Browns are going to derail the Ravens and knock them into wild-card status in the playoffs, solely on the strong foot of Phil Dawson. They'll get just close enough to the Baltimore goal line for Dawson to make them pay. Make it:

Browns 15, Ravens 14

Monday, December 20, 2010

Monday leftovers

When Eric Mangini eschewed a standard kickoff following the Browns' last touchdown in Sunday's loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, he basically thumbed his nose at his defense.

There were two minutes and 13 seconds left in the game and the Browns had two timeouts plus the two-minute warning timeout. So that's three clock stoppages, which would have given Colt McCoy and his men plenty of time to have a shot at winning the game. Except Mangini opted for an onside kick.

In other words, he felt his odds for winning were greater with an onside kick than turning the ball over to the Bengals in standard fashion and watching Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott continue to dance all over his defense. No other reason to explain the onside kick with so much time remaining and so many timeouts in hand.

That is an indictment on a defense that has played reasonably well this season. Or is it? Was Mangini's snub of his defense warranted? A quick look at the Browns' time of possession in the last two games reveals the answer.

The late-season collapse against the run is due, in large part, to the offense's inability to remain on the field. In the last two games, that offense has played an embarrassing 46 minutes out of 120. When your defense is on the field 62% of the time, attrition is almost expected. The result was 380 rushing yards by Buffalo and Cincinnati.

This defense is worn out, bone tired. With any kind of cooperation from the offense, which is a pathetic 4-for-18 on third downs in those two games (and one of those was via the penalty route), the defense most likely doesn't wear down to the point where every running back looks like an All-Pro against them.

So maybe Mangini did the right thing in attempting an onside kick. Almost worked, too.

How ironic that a late-season surge last season most likely saved Mangini's job when Mike Holmgren climbed aboard and now a late-season collapse this season most likely will cost him that job.

If the coach is going to hang his hat on his team's mid-season blast this season --you remember the glory days of the Saints and Patriots victories, don't you? -- in an effort to hold on to his job, he better do some fast talking and dancing. Holmgren is no dummy and now, he has tangible evidence by which to determine Mangini's immediate future.

When he took over earlier this year, all the team president had was knowledge that the Browns closed strong last season. And Mangini was able to smooth-talk his way to another crack at coaching this club. Now, after watching the Browns stumble and bumble their way to a 5-9 record thus far, Holmgren has a much clearer picture of the direction in which his club is marching. That direction, for the most part, would be reverse.

What in the world is wrong with Joshua Cribbs? He's no longer one of the most dangerous return men in the National Football League. He's not even close. At best, he's been average thus far. And the Browns aren't paying him more money to be average.

OK, so he's got four dislocated toes on one foot. Then he shouldn't be playing if the injury hampers his ability to returns kicks and punts. But even when he was healthy, Cribbs did not display the take-it-all-the-way talents we have come -- perhaps unfairly -- to expect.

Of course, he's not going to take every kickoff all the way. But his inability to give the Browns' offense a short field has made it more difficult for the offense. If he makes it to his 35-yard line now, that's considered an accomplishment. And a disappointment because fans expect him to break one. Not hope. Expect.

Some players get voted into the Pro Bowl year after year based on reputation. In most cases, that reputation is based on solid play. In his first three seasons with the Browns, offensive tackle Joe Thomas was deservedly chosen to participate in the post-season game.

If he is chosen again this season, reputation will have a lot to do with it because his play does not warrant selection. For whatever reason, the big guy from Wisconsin has not played up to the All-Pro high standard that garnered him all those votes in the previous three seasons.

His pass protection has been uneven. And his run blocking -- he is more finesse than smash mouth -- has been less than desirable. It's not like he's having a bad season. He's not. He's just not having the kind of season we've all come to expect from the Pro Bowler.

Call it a hunch because that's all it is. But somehow, I think the Browns will split their final two games at home against Baltimore and Pittsburgh and finish 6-10. It won't save Mangini's job, but it might give some fans a good feeling with which to end the season. I don't know who they're going to beat or how they're going to do it. I just feel it in my bones.

I prefer it to be against Baltimore this Sunday for obvious reasons and because the Ravens could be ripe for an upset. They've played extremely difficult games the past three weekends (against the Steelers, Texans and Saints) and might figure the Browns game will provide an emotional and mental break. That's when letdowns occur.

Quick thoughts: Welcome back, Brian Robiskie. It's nice go see you finally contribute to the cause. . . . Any question that Colt McCoy's favorite throw is the 20- to 25-yard seam route to his tight end? . . . What has happened to the pass rush? Just two sacks against two of the worst offensive lines in the NFL the last two Sundays. . . . How badly has this team missed Scott Fujita at outside linebacker? Rhetorical question. . . . Why do Mo Massaquoi and Chansi Stuckey have such a hard time getting open? . . . Has Peyton Hillis finally worn down to the point where he is no longer effective?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

It's hammer (and nail) time

Pass the next nail, please. Yep, that one in the box marked "Mangini." And pass the hammer while you're at it.

What do I want that for? you ask. Isn't the answer obvious?

It's to drive what should be the final nail into the head coaching coffin of Eric Mangini, who has to know by now his days as coach of the Cleveland Browns are numbered. As in no later than the day after the last game of the season, which would make that Jan. 3. Or 15 days from now.

Mangini is a smart man (not coach) and if he isn't updating his resume after Sunday's humiliating 19-17 loss to the Bengals down in Cincinnati, he's in full denial. There is absolutely no way he comes back for a third season.

If Mike Holmgren has even the tiniest notion of even thinking about bringing Mangini back for one more season of this torture, then Randy Lerner made the wrong move in bringing him to Cleveland to run the show.

Fans have seen enough. Even some of those who still believe Mangini is the right guy for the Browns must now see the club has slammed the gear into reverse. And that's the coach's fault. No one else's His alone.

Two weeks in a row now, Mangini's Browns faced a two-victory team. And two weeks in a row, they have emerged with a performance that reeks of a stench so toxic, nothing will get rid of it short of changing head coaches.

It was very obvious the Browns were not prepared to play the 2-11 Bengals. Sound familiar? Happened against the 2-10 Bills the previous week. Happened against the at-the-time 1-9 Carolina Panthers, too, but they got lucky and won that one. No one has stepped up and made a big play (on both sides of the ball) when it was required.

And yes, this is virtually the same team that knocked off the three-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and defending Super Bowl champ New Orleans Saints in consecutive weeks earlier this season. Hard to believe, isn't it?

There is no question this team has completely fallen apart. If not for a couple of fortunate victories against Carolina and Miami, the Browns would be dragging up the rear of the National Football League. They have played less than inspired football since nearly beating the New York Jets back on Nov. 14.

They arrive on game day not ready to play. More than half the game in the NFL is mental preparedness and psychological readiness. Emotion plays such a big part in this game and the Browns, for the most part, have exhibited very little since their brief (and very deceiving) mid-season push.

Sunday against the Bengals, the defense played shoddy football, especially against the run. The Bengals averaged 88 yards a game on the ground coming into the game. They ran for 188 against the Browns, who tackled as though they wished the season was over. Cedric Benson looked like a combination of Emmitt Smith and Earl Campbell with his 150 yards.

The offense, with the exception of the flawless opening drive, struggled despite the return of Colt McCoy. There is no reason that side of the ball should be scuffling at this point of the season. The offensive line has become the gateway to the quarterback with Turnstile John St. Clair leading the way. McCoy had little or no time to throw most of the afternoon.

His return to the lineup after recovering from a high ankle sprain was somewhat disappointing since most fans believed anything would be better than Jake Delhomme and anticipated a victory. But the rookie quarterback received little cooperation from his offensive line.

He was sacked four times, hit on at least a half dozen other occasions and flushed out of the pocket more than he wanted. His 132.6 passer rating on a 19-for-25, 243-yard, two-tocuhdown afternoon more than proves that statistic often times is very misleading.

And there should be no excuse for the offensive line to regress at this point of the season. But that's precisely what we're seeing. The Cincinnati defensive front seven, which gives up 125 yards a game, humbled Peyton Hillis, limiting him to just 59 yards and an embarrassing one first down on the ground.

The Cleveland offense ran just 43 plays from scrimmage and owned the ball for only 22 minutes against the Bengals. The week before against Buffalo, the Browns ran 46 plays and had the ball 24 minutes. You don't win games with time of possession figures like that.

This season hasn't merely slipped away. It has careened into a runaway nightmare. The fans have been humiliated enough. They believe it's time to finally bring in a coach who can make them feel good again about their team. Ten losing seasons in 12 since the return in 1999 ratchets up a lot of anger.

That's why it's time to finally put an end to the misery of Browns Nation. It's time for Mike Holmgren to do the right thing. It's time for Eric Mangini to effect a complete separation from Cleveland. Pay him the rest of his contract to not coach the Browns.

So please hand me that hammer and nail and stand back. This one's for the great fans of the Cleveland Browns.

Friday, December 17, 2010


How can the Cincinnati Bengals enter Sunday's game against the Browns with a 2-11 record? With virtually the same talent brought back from last season's 10-6 team that won the AFC North, that seems unfathomable.

Only once since being formed by Paul Brown in 1968 have the Bengals finished with just two victories. That was in 2002 before Marvin Lewis arrived and pumped new life into the franchise.

The Bengals drag a 10-game losing streak into Sunday's game with the Browns. They haven't won since knocking off Baltimore and Carolina in weeks two and three.

So what in the world has happened to that team down South that caused it to challenge Carolina and Buffalo for the bottom of the National Football League barrel this season? Are the Bengals really that bad? Has Cincinnati become Bungleland again?

The Bengals certainly seemed to have the talent on offense entering this season, buttressing it with the addition of Terrell Owens. The mouthy one hasn't disappointed with 72 catches, 983 yards and nine touchdowns. And Chad 85, playing a lesser role on the field (but definitely not elsewhere) with Owens on board, still checks in with 65-795-4 TD.

Perhaps it's the offensive line, which has watched as Cincinnati quarterbacks have been dropped 28 times and hammered on countless other dropbacks. Then factor in the running game, which has produced just 88 yards a game, and some reasons for the demise come more clearly into focus.

The Bengals can move the ball all right with Carson Palmer at quarterback. But the strong-armed quarterback has been much more mistake-prone this season, nearly equalling his 21 touchdown passes with 18 interceptions. A stunning five of those picks have been returned for touchdowns.

The defense, which came on so strong last season, gave no indication of bottoming out in 2010. In fact, it was believed by many experts around professional football that the AFC North just might be the strongest in the NFL with Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore. Then they played the games.

That supposedly improving Cincinnati defense has hemorrhaged 26.5 points a game. Only Dallas, Houston, Denver and Arizona have surrendered more points. Even pathetic Buffalo and Carolina have given up fewer points.

The Bengals yield 348 yards of total offense a game, including 125 on the ground (warning, warning: the Buffalo Bills are far worse against the run, but neutralized Peyton Hills last week); have allowed 31 touchdowns in 13 games; and managed just 18 sacks, five by part-time rookie defensive end Carlos Dunlap. Not exactly the kind of numbers Lewis expected this season.

A quick peek at last season's results provides a small clue as to why the Bengals are a lock to bring up the rear of the division this season. They played nine games where the margin of victory was seven or fewer points and won eight of those games. This season, they have played seven such games and lost six.

Add it all up and 2-11 doesn't seem so far-fetched. It clearly has jeopardized Lewis' job as head coach. The only given is that the Bengals have played badly enough to the point where any thoughts of retaining Lewis have all but disappeared.

So how does this all impact the Browns, who knocked off the Bengals for their first victory of the season back in week four despite a 371-yard, two-touchdown day for Palmer and a 10-reception, 222-yard, one-TD afternoon for Owens?

This ain't the same Bengals team. This one is deflated and dysfunctional beyond description. Owens, who has maintained a diplomatic stance most of the season, couldn't hold it any longer after the Bengals lost their franchise-tying 10th straight game last week against Pittsburgh.

""I think there's underachieving from the top down," he told Chad 85 on their cable TV show earlier this week. "You start with the owner, you start with the coaches. And obviously we as players, we are a product of what the coaches are coaching us throughout the course of the week.

"Of course, we have to go out there and play the game. But in order for us to do what we're allowed to do at the best of our abilities, the coaches have to put the players in the best position."

Now that Colt McCoy is back under center for the Browns, and even though the game is being played in Cincinnati, look for this one to be a laugher as Cleveland sweeps the season series and sends the underachieving Bengals to a franchise record 11th straight loss. Make it:

Browns 38, Bengals 20

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Crocodile tears

So LeBron James feels for his former Cavaliers teammates. At least that what he intimates in a story by reporter Brian Windhorst that ran in the Cleveland Plain Dealer Tuesday.

"I know what type of competitors the guys that I played with are, they don't like to lose," he said. "When we were together, we didn't like to lose. It is definitely tough. It is a tough situation going on in Cleveland. I wish those guys the best."

Supposedly, he was serious when he said that. If so, he has taken up residence in Fantasyland. Maybe it makes him feel better. Perhaps the guilt of moving down South hasn't completely worn off.


Spare me the false sympathy. It's absurdly disingenuous.

If he cared, really cared, he never would have even considered leaving Cleveland.

Here is the best player in the National Basketball Association deserting those teammates of which he spoke so lovingly to take up residence with a whole new set. In doing so, he left his former club bereft of the kind of talent with which to compete, let alone contend.

Perhaps it's a lot clearer to him today to strongly consider that the main reason those ex-teammates have lost eight in a row and are careening toward the bottom of the NBA is because he left. Without LeBron, the Cavaliers have been exposed as a very bad basketball team. That's how much of a difference he made.

Not even the coaching talents of Byron Scott can do anything with this team. The Cavs' talent quotient ranks at or certainly very near the bottom of the NBA. Put LeBron on the current team and they are not 7-17 heading into tonight's massacre down in Miami. In fact, they'd be leading the Central Division. Comfortably.

There is not one take-charge player on this team. There is not one man who can step up on any given night and say, "Climb on my back. Just follow me. I'll lead us to victory."

That's the element LeBron gave them the last seven seasons. His teammates fed off him. He showed up every night and they played better because of him. They became the best team in the regular season because of him.

This team is nothing but a bunch of followers. Followers don't win many games. They compete every now and then. They'll win a game here or there. You just never know when.

Scott has got to know he has stepped into a minefield. It seems that no matter what he does, no matter how much he tinkers, he has yet to come up with any viable solution to the club''s problems a quarter of the way through the season. That's because there is no viable solution.

That solution bolted to South Beach last July. So unless General Manager Chris Grant begins changing faces, nothing is going to change.

Scott's main worry, other than getting his club untracked, is that he works for an owner who is used to success. Dan Gilbert cannot be taking all this losing this very well, especially after guaranteeing to his fans that his club will win an NBA title before LeBron and the Miami Heat.

That, most obviously, is not going to happen.

The Heat is on a roll with nine straight -- no, make that 10 straight after tonight -- victories after shaking off early-season problems. And you can bet LeBron will at least duplicate his 38-points-in-30-minutes virtuoso performance when the teams met earlier this month in Cleveland.

"As much as I would love for them to get back on track, I don't want them to get back on track against us," he told Windhorst.

Don't worry, LeBron. That's not going to happen tonight or in the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

It's a no-brainer

Colt McCoy has pronounced himself ready to resume his duties as quarterback of the Browns. His high ankle sprain is healed and he is champing at the bit to get back in there.

Ready, set, go.

Hold on there, buckaroo, says Eric Mangini. Not so fast.

So what is Mangini waiting for? What now?

"I'm going to see where we're at on Wednesday and kind of go from there," he told the media Monday. "He was able to get to where he could function as the third [quarterback in the Buffalo loss Sunday], so we've got to see where that is and think about it and we'll go from there."

We know Mangini is a football coach, not a doctor. But if McCoy was healthy enough to be the third quarterback against the Bills, it meant he was available in the event Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace went down. In other words, he's ready.

McCoy says so. So why doesn't Mangini? Is he back to his old tricks of playing coy? Here we go again.

It would appear as though he wants the Cincinnati Bengals to wonder just who will be under center when the two AFC North rivals meet Sunday in Cincinnati. Like it makes a huge difference.

Here we are 13 games into the National Football League season and the Cleveland coach is still playing head games with opponents. And this particular opponent has won a measly two games this season.

Stop it already. The season is shot. Once again, the Browns will be spectators at playoff time. So why mess with the minds on a two-victory team? They couldn't care less who you start.

The bigger dilemma will be to try and solve the problems with the Browns' offense. Asked what those problems were, Mangini gave a disturbing answer. "I don't know," he said. "I don't have too much to say about it."

What??!! For someone who verbally tap dances deftly around the most difficult questions, that is a remarkable answer. "I don't know" is not the kind of answer I would expect from Mangini.

Has the man given up? Is he just as frustrated as the fans at the impotence of his team's offense?

Perhaps he has come to the realization his future in Cleveland hangs in the balance in the final three games of the season. And maybe his career as a head coach in the NFL as well.

McCoy was the starting quarterback by default when the Browns went through the toughest part of their schedule midway through the season. It was during that period that they looked like a contending team, hanging with four (and beating two) of the toughest teams in the league.

It was the Browns' performance in those games that gave rise to the hope that maybe, just maybe, the club was approaching that corner fans have been dreaming about for years. You know the one. The one that, when turned, leads to bigger and better things.

Since McCoy's departure with the high ankle sprain, the Browns have not played well on offense. They have won two of the last three games due mainly to an unusual streak of good luck. They could just as easily have a five-game losing streak entering Sunday.

So drop the pretenses, coach. Name McCoy the starter. What he gives you is something your other two quarterbacks can't. For some reason, the team seems to play better when he's under center.

Besides, it's entirely possible he just might be able to save your job if he helps you win two of the next three games.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Monday leftovers

Time to play the blame game with regard to the offense of your Cleveland Browns. And no punches will be pulled or otherwise directed elsewhere.

There is no question the Cleveland offense lately has turned into a one-trick pony. It's Peyton Hillis up the middle, Peyton Hillis in the flat for a pass, Peyton Hillis over the middle for a dump-off pass, Peyton Hillis around end, Peyton Hillis here, Peyton Hillis there.

In the last four games, the Browns have had 234 snaps from scrimmage on offense. Hillis has touched the ball 110 times in that span, either running the ball, catching it or throwing it. That's an astounding 47% of the time.

Now I like Hillis and what he brings to the offense, but that's way too much for any player on the offense, outside of the quarterback of course, to be handling the ball. It's one thing to rely on someone you trust. It's quite another when that player is playing full-time for the first time in his professional career.

Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has fallen so much in love with his large running back, he seems to have forgotten there are other pieces and parts of the offense that have been underused. Sure the Browns have the worst set of wide receivers in the National Football League. But to almost totally ignore them makes his offense way too predictable.

Then again, perhaps it's because he has so little confidence in Jake Delhomme that he dumbs down his game plans. Very few, if any, throws are directed downfield. Basic running plays use an offensive line incapable of blocking well enough for them to succeed.

The Browns' five offensive linemen are not strong enough to blow anyone off the ball. They are not mashers. This is a finesse group. You probably noticed that a vast majority of Hillis' yards are gained after initial contact. That's because he's getting hit far too early, a condition that ultimately leads to fumbling because of second and third efforts. Opponents now are looking to rake the ball out of his hands first before thinking about tackling him.

Daboll needs to back off on using Hillis so much and involve the other members of his roster. Design plays that take advantage of what the offensive line can do well.

When, for example, did you see the Browns use misdirection plays in their attack? Flow one way with the play going the other. Teams with defenses that are more reactive are susceptible to giving up big plays with misdirection.

And when was the last time you saw a Cleveland tight end run a seam route straight down the middle of the field? No deep square ins or 15- to 18-yard out cuts. Right down the middle. So simple and yet so forgotten.

When he looks back at his body of work with the Browns following his dismissal, Daboll no doubt will realize he failed to maximize the talent with which he had to work. That's because he did not put them in a position to succeed.

So who put Daboll in a position to fail? Here comes some more blame.

Eric Mangini some day will look back and rue the decision to stick with Daboll so long because it'll eventually cost him his job, too. He's come too far with loyalty to his coordinator to admit that now. He won't do the Greyhound thing with him with only three games left in the regular season.

Mangini has no one but himself to blame for the Browns' offensive ineptitude. He seems to coach not to lose rather than trying to win. That approach appears to have missed feisty defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, however, but seems to have trickled down to Daboll.

For once, I'd like to see a Browns head coach encourage his team to slap around opponents. Get physical. Let them know they've been in a game. Develop a reputation that when you play the Browns, you're in for a long afternoon.

Now let's deal with Delhomme as the blame game continues.

What in the world did Mike Holmgren see that led him to gift the over-the-hill veteran quarterback with a $7 million contract and the job as the team's No. 1 quarterback? Delhomme arrived with the reputation of being a good leader, some who could inspire other teammates. A good guy in the clubhouse.

He also arrived with the reputation of delivering the football into opponents' hands with an alarming degree of regularity. Haven't Browns fans seen enough of that through the years with the likes of Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn?

Only the faces and names change, it seems. Otherwise, it's the same old, same old.

Holmgren is supposed to be a quarterbacks guru. He has developed them, nurtured them, knows their strengths and their faults. He's the godfather of quarterbacks, right?

Well, this time he blew it by foisting Delhomme on his coaching staff. Marc Bulger was out there, but the club president opted for Captain Interception. By now, he probably realizes the best quarterback on the squad is the guy he lobbied for in the third round of last April's draft. At least he got that one right based on what we've seen thus far.

It's pretty safe to say Joshua Cribbs will not he headed to the Pro Bowl this season. The return specialist has been anything but special this season for any number of reasons.

Opposing teams have kicked away from him for the most part and the Browns have allowed up men in kickoffs to handle the ball. There's no reason why Cribbs can't move up from the goal one and field kickoffs deeper upfield.

When opponents have challenged him, though, he still hasn't broken one. Why? Because they know he's a north and south runner and have jammed the middle of the field and forced to him to travel east and west. As soon as he breaks in either of those directions, he loses speed and leaves himself open for more contact due to better tackling angles.

It took a few years, but opponents have finally taken away one of the Browns' most important weapons. The field position he gave the offense was invaluable. Working with a short field is always a bonus. That luxury no longer is the case for the Browns.

In watching the loss to Buffalo Sunday, I noticed something rather disturbing. When Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick ran a keeper to the left side of the Browns' defense late in the second quarter, he picked up about 8-10 extra yards by tiptoeing along the sideline.

Several Cleveland defenders had a shot at pushing him out of bounds, but chose for whatever reason not to do so, perhaps thinking he was going to step out. Well, he didn't and picked up the bonus yardage before Kenyon Coleman finally shoved him out. It helped shorten the length of Rian Lindell's field goal that gave the Bills a 10-6 halftime lead.

It was just another example of passive football from a team that can ill afford to play that way. Hopefully, Ryan delivered a strong message to his men at the half.

Did Ben Watson play against the Bills? He did? How'd he do? One catch? One measly catch by the club's leading non-running back receiver? What the . . . Well, how many times did Delhomme throw to him? How many times was he targeted? One? One!!!!! Just one? Was he hurt? Did he catch the dreaded high ankle sprain virus? One stinking catch all afternoon? How many catches did he have the week before, something like 10? Must have been too tired to be counted on against the Bills.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

What a revoltin' development

How inept were the Browns on offense Sunday against the Buffalo Bills? The 2-10 coming-into-the-game Buffalo Bills? The worst-in-the-National Football League-against-the-run Buffalo Bills? The embarrassingly-bad Buffalo Bills?

Let's start with nine first downs all afternoon. That's right, NINE. And one was by penalty. Now throw in 187 yards of total offense, sprinkle in a measly 23 minutes and 50 seconds of possession, add a dash of a paltry 46 plays from scrimmage on offense and, just for good measure, conclude with never crossing midfield in five second-half possessions.

Inept enough for you? No? How about five fumbles, a crucial interception from Captain Interception himself, Jake Delhomme, and three turnovers in the 13-6 loss? The Browns create six turnovers against Jacksonville and lose. They gift the Bills with three turnovers and . . . lose.

Hmmmm. What's wrong with this picture?

Any more inept a performance and you would have thought you were watching a bad college football team. No, make that a bad Division III football team.

And no, it's not just one game. It's not just a blip on the radar. An aberration. This kind of game has been coming for weeks now.

In snapping a deceiving two-game winning streak, the Browns on this afternoon wound up as the embarrassed team, sinking to a season low. They didn't play any better or worse -- well, maybe a little worse on offense -- than they did in victories over Carolina or Miami the last two weeks, except that luck played a major role in them.

The impact of this loss also could have a far reaching effect on the job status of coach Eric Mangini, whose emotional roller-coaster of a season has taken a severe hit. Losing to Buffalo, especially in this manner, cannot sit well with President Mike Holmgren and General Manager Tom Heckert Jr.

If these two gentlemen are not seething over this loss, then something is terribly wrong (again) with the Browns' front office. There is no excuse for this kind of performance. None. Not even the cold, drizzly Buffalo weather can be used as an excuse. The 5-7 Browns should have handily defeated the woeful Bills.

Instead, they played an awful game. Anyone who denies this needs to either visit his ophthalmologist immediately or buy a book about football and learn something about the game.

The defense played well enough to win except for some sloppy tackling -- shocking!! -- in the latter stages when it was obvious the Bills were going to stay on the ground and run out the clock. No, the offense takes sole responsibility for this loss.

The Browns clearly were ill-prepared when they owned the ball. The play calling lacked imagination and creativity. Howdy Doody could have called a better game than Brian Daboll, whose tenure as the club's offensive coordinator should end somewhere around 5 p.m. on Jan. 2, an hour after the regular season concludes.

They kept running the same dive play with Peyton Hills over and over again. On their initial possession of the game, Daboll called Hillis' number on three straight dive plays after the Browns reached the Buffalo 5. They gained four yards. It was as though the Bills knew exactly what was coming. The Browns had to settle for a Phil Dawson field goal.

Where was the play fake to Hillis and Delhomme looking for a wide open Ben Watson in the end zone as the Bills bite on the play fake? Where was the quick fade to Mo Massaquoi? Or a spread formation to loosen up the Buffalo defense? Where was the creativity?

Hard to believe this is the same team that defeated the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots what seemed like a half season ago and played the New York Jets tough enough to extend them to overtime before losing. In three consecutive games, the Browns looked like a team on the verge of becoming consistently competitive. Those teams today are a combined 30-9.

The new and improved Browns even had national pundits taking a more serious look at them. Hey, maybe this new Browns team is legit, they wrote. Let's pay more attention to them.

After this game, however, forget it. You can bet that kind of attention is going to disappear. Once again, the Browns slink back below the radar and out of the consciousness of NFL fans.

Perhaps it's a coincidence, but the Cleveland quarterback in those three games was Colt McCoy. Because if isn't just happenstance, the rookie's sore high ankle sprain can't heal quickly enough if Mangini has any hopes of saving his job.

It was thought at the beginning of the season that the coach was on a short leash. He needed to wind up better than his 5-11 debut in Cleveland last season to get at least a third year. A victory over the Bills with 2-10 Cincinnati coming up next Sunday gave optimistic Mangini supporters hope. A 7-7 record heading into the final two weeks back home against Baltimore and Pittsburgh looked promising.

If those supporters now don't have at least a shred of doubt in their minds about their guy after watching the Browns out-inept the Bills, then blind faith has found a new path.

For a while Sunday, it looked as though luck again was riding shotgun with the Cleveland offense. During their second series in the third quarter, the Browns fumbled three times and, amazingly, recovered all three. It was a most bizarre possession that covered nine plays, gained a net 24 yards and earned two first downs, one on an illegal contact call.

There was no reason whatsoever for Cleveland to take the Bills lightly. But it sure looked that way, especially in the second half with the game there to be taken. And the Browns, specifically Delhomme and the overrated offensive line, simply blew it.

There is no excuse for only 58 yards of offense on five possessions in the final 30 minutes. No excuse for just 23 plays. And definitely no excuse for a pathetic three first downs.

According to what we've been told, Delhomme was brought here for his leadership abilities. Right now, those abilities are leading the Browns -- and Mangini -- toward a season-ending disaster. The season concludes with games against their three AFC North buddies, two of whom own 18 victories between them.

If those buds help the Browns close out the season on a bitter note, Mangini might not be able to talk his way back to Berea for next season. And Sunday's loss in Buffalo might very well be the catalyst for his departure.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Can you say blowout?

It's funny sometimes how statistics can deceive the most casual observer of the National Football League.

Take, for example, the 12-game stats of the following two teams, who shall remain nameless to prove a point.

Team 1 has only one more first down than Team 2 this season. It also has just 42 more rushing yards. But Team 2 has accumulated 27 more total yards on offense and scored five more touchdowns and 14 more points. Of Team 2's 30 TDs, 27 have come on offense, while Team 1's offense produced 22 of its 25 scores. Team 2 also has 119 more passing yards.

So which team has the better record based on those stats? Sound just about even, don't they?

But since the game is played on both sides of the ball, let's now take a look at the defensive stats, which will be much more revealing.

Team 1 has just three more quarterback sacks than Team 2, but Team 2 has allowed 290 fewer passing yards. However, Team 2 has allowed 532 more total yards than Team 1, yielded 622 more yards on the ground -- remember this is for 12 games -- than Team 1, and has surrendered 10 more touchdowns and 94 more points. Team 1 has a whopping 10 more interceptions.

On offense, a standoff. On defense, a clear mismatch favoring Team 1.

Now for the reveal.

Team 1 is the 5-7 Browns, whose defensive superiority over Team 2, the 2-10 Buffalo Bills, suggests what could very well be a blowout Sunday when the teams meet in Western New York.

Offensively, the teams are somewhat similar except for the method they prefer to score. The Bills are no strangers to the end zone, striking mostly through the air. The Browns, on the other hand, prefer the infantry when approaching the opponent's goal line. And with a runaway truck like Peyton Hillis carrying the ball, who could blame them?

Based on the Bills' stats against the run, Brian Daboll would have to be classified as brain dead if he does not seriously increase Hillis' workload. Even with the unpredictability of the weather at this time of the year in Orchard Park, the Cleveland offensive line should get plenty of work on its zone, drive and trap blocking.

Hillis not only should eclipse 1,000 yards this season -- he's 38 yards shy -- in this one, he very well could blast past the 1,100-yard plateau. He's the perfect antidote for December football.

The way the Bills' defense hemorrhages yards on the ground, Jake Delhomme should spend most of the game honing his skills at handing off the football. And with fullback Lawrence Vickers ravaging linebackers in front of him, Hillis could have a spectacular afternoon. Bills linebacker Paul Posluszny and safety Donte Whitner (from Glenville), who lead the team in tackles, can look forward to another busy day.

The Cleveland defense, however, will not have a walkover. The Bills can be a scary team, especially when quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick drops back to throw. Nearly two-thirds of Buffalo's yards on offense this season have come through the air.

The Harvard graduate has a couple of very good receivers with whom he likes to play pitch and catch. Browns cornerbacks Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown will have to pay close attention to Steve Johnson and Bedford's Lee Evans, who have combined for 13 touchdown catches. Johnson, who has nine of those scores, has what can loosely be called Braylon Edwards hands.

On the ground, it's strictly a one-man show for the Bills with Fred Jackson, who has scored five of his club's six touchdowns via the run.

All in all, this could wind up -- weather permitting -- a high-scoring affair. The weather forecast calls for a high of around 38 with an 80% chance of precipitation. Perfect for Hills. And the Browns as they gun for three straight victories. Make it:

Browns 37, Bills 17

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Monday leftovers

You could see it coming a few weeks ago when he picked off his first pass as a professional. And it has been building ever since.

Slowly, but very surely, Joe Haden is beginning to make General Manager Tom Heckert Jr. look awfully good for making him the Browns' top pick in last April's college draft. His performance in Sunday's 13-10 victory down in Miami did nothing to hurt that notion.

Maybe it was because he was playing in his native Florida. Then again, maybe it was just another huge building block as he strives to prove he belongs.

Shortly after being named rookie defensive player for November, Haden kicked off December with one of the best performances by a Browns defensive back in a long time regardless of experience. He played like anything but a rookie as he sent a powerful message around the National Football League that teams pick on him at their own risk.

Haden did it all against the Dolphins, who picked on him all afternoon. If he wasn't defensing passes (he knocked down four, including one in the end zone), he was supporting the run with the kind of solid tackling not seen from a member of the secondary in quite a while. Now throw in his fifth interception of the season and you have what can be considered a solid afternoon.

The most impressive part of his game is the tackling. Rather than arm tackling, Haden is a throwback, wrapping up the ball carrier and dragging him down. He does not leave his feet until he's certain he can make the tackle. And he is rarely out of position.

Yep, it looks as though Eric Wright will have a tough time claiming his starting spot back. At least for this season.

What in the world caused coordinator Brian Daboll to button up his offense against the Dolphins? Just about every Jake Delhomme pass was of the low-risk, high-percentage variety. Maybe it was those two interceptions he threw last week against Carolina.

Daboll allowed Delhomme to throw downfield just three times all afternoon against the young Miami secondary, preferring instead to be satisfied with a lot of underneath stuff, especially to tight end Ben Watson. All that got, for the most part, were nine punts by Reggie Hodges. Now maybe Daboll was under orders to keep it conservative. If he was, then shame on Eric Mangini.

It became obvious the Dolphins were determined not to let Peyton Hillis get free and stuffed the middle with six- and sometimes seven-man fronts. Basically, they dared Delhomme to throw the ball. And when he did throw downfield, he was successful twice to Mo Massaquoi.

A lack of offensive creativity was evident. No misdirection plays against Miami's active defense. No screen plays or draw plays just to keep them honest. Only vanilla plays with Hillis futilely pounding his way for meager yardage. After a while, it became frustrating. And then maddening.

Gotta give credit to Mangini for that unorthodox maneuver at the end of the game when he had Delhomme kneel down three times in the shadow of the Miami goal line before bringing in Phil Dawson to kick the chip-shot game-winning field goal on the final play of regulation. Credit is given clearly in the nature of a second guess only because it worked.

But I'm not so certain a Bill Belichick or a Rex Ryan or a Mike Tomlin or a Tom Coughlin or most NFL coaches, for that matter, would have done the same thing given the same set of circumstances. No, most coaches don't mind taking chances and play to win rather than not to lose.

What it showed was Mangini's lack of confidence in not only his offense to score a touchdown from the 2-yard line with less a minute left in regulation to break a 10-10 tie, but a similar lack of confidence in his defense, which damn near blew the lead in the last few seconds of last Sunday's victory against Carolina.

How can one team look so good on one drive -- the six-play, 94-yarder that produced the Browns' only TD of the afternoon -- and yet look so embarrassingly awful the rest of the game? It's almost as though they flipped a switch and decided to justify their paychecks at least once. . . . John St. Clair is a turnstile. There is no other way to describe the Browns' offensive right tackle. He provides a gateway to the quarterback that is alarming. Only problem is there is no one better. Well, maybe Pork Chop Womack, but he's busy playing right guard because there's no one better there. . . . Next up: The Buffalo Bills, who followed up their overtime loss to Pittsburgh last Sunday by going up to Minnesota and getting blasted by the Vikings. Is it possible? Three straight victories by this time next week? Very strange, but very possible.

Winning this ugly is really ugly

Luck, it has been said, is the residue of hard work.

In the Browns' 13-10 victory in Miami Sunday, however, hard work had absolutely nothing to do with it. This was was pure luck from start to finish.

In a game neither team tried very hard to win, the luck dial bent just slightly enough in the Browns' direction to allow Phil Dawson to put an end to 59 minutes and 59 seconds of miserable football. If, however, you believe the Browns and Dolphins did try hard, then ugly is not a strong enough adjective to describe what unfolded in that time span.

This one went so far beyond ugly, the National Football League should hide its head in embarrassment. It's a wonder Dolphins fans didn't demand their money back for false advertising. It was not your classic defensive battle considering the final score.

Quick timeout to allow the statistics to paint the grim picture. Each team had 13 possessions, not including a Browns kneeldown at the end of the first half. In nine of those series, the Browns ran more than five plays just four times. The Dolphins were worse with 10 of their series consuming five or fewer plays.

The teams combined for a pathetic six third-down conversions in 28 attempts, just 29 first downs and only 533 yards of total offense. And the weather was beautiful. More beautiful than the football played under it.

Considering what transpired a large majority of the afternoon, one can only wonder in amazement what possessed these juggernauts to suddenly treat the crowd with back-to-back, where-did-those-come-from touchdown drives in a dizzying span of 9:29. It took the Browns just three minutes and 40 seconds to cover 94 yards in six plays to take a late third-quarter lead, but the Dolphins struck right back with an 11-play, 80-yard march to tie it.

And that, for all practical purposes, was it for the afternoon when each team owned the ball. Just as suddenly, the offense ground to a halt. Nearly one-third of the day's offense was consumed on those two drives. Dolphins fans needed No-Doz as they watched their team fall for the fifth time in six games at home this season.

Both teams played a relatively conservative game, a sort of play-not-lose philosophy which uglied up the game. Rarely did either club attempt to strike downfield. Most of the running game took place between the tackles. It was conservative football at its worst.

Miami quarterback Chad Henne tried mightily to hand this one to the Browns with three interceptions, the first two winding up as three points on the scoreboard. He finally succeeded with the third when linebacker David Bowens luckily got enough of his big paw to deflect a pass into the hands of nickelback Mike Adams to set up Dawson's game-winner.

Why the Dolphins were throwing from deep in their territory on third down with a minute left and just one timeout in a tie game is a head scratcher. Maybe Dolphins coach Tony Sparano couldn't stand another 15 minutes of this kind of football.

A moment earlier, the Dolphins had a chance to put the game away when rookie cornerback Nolan Carroll jumped the route of Cleveland tight end Ben Watson, but dropped a sure pick six of a Jake Delhomme pass that hit him squarely in the hands around the Cleveland 35. That's a whole different kind of luck. The residue of hard work? Hardly. The residue of bad football perhaps.

The offenses in this one were truly and most sincerely offensive. It was a textbook display of how not to play offensive football.

Maybe that's why Browns coach Eric Mangini had so much faith in his offense, he ordered three straight kneeldowns by Delhomme from the Miami 3 before Dawson was summoned. If that doesn't cry "I don't trust you guys anymore" then nothing will.

It was a huge and most unorthodox gamble by Mangini, who risked a bad snap, a bad hold or even a shank by Dawson. Come to think of it, that would have been a more fitting ending to regulation considering what preceded it.

As it turned out, holder Reggie Hodges had to snatch a rare high snap by Ryan Pontbriand and gave Dawson a perfect spot for the game-winner.

That's two straight victories for the Browns now and both fall into the luck category. A blown last-second field goal by Carolina's John Kasay last Sunday and now this. Two ugly victories, but they all count. At least this one didn't seem like a loss.

Maybe it's a sign of things to come.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

All the signs point to a . . .

Good news/bad news time for the Browns, road warriors for the next three Sundays.

Bad news: They have made five trips thus far this season with just one victory. That, of course was, inexplicably, in New Orleans against the Saints.

Now the good news: Their first stop is in Miami, normally an unfriendly visit at this time of the year except for the obvious weather break. That's not the good news. The 6-5 Dolphins have the exact same home record as the Browns' success on the road. They're 1-4.

No one can explain why. A quick check of their schedule shows that perhaps it's because the losses have been to the New York Jets, New England, Pittsburgh and Chicago, four of the best teams in the National Football League. Spoiling the winless-at-home embarrassment was a victory over Tennessee a few weeks ago.

The Dolphins have also shown an interesting schedule characteristic this season. After winning their first two games on the road, they lost their next two at home. Since then, they have gone W-L-W-L-W-L-W. Consistently inconsistent.

So . . . what could one glean from such a pattern? Why a Browns victory of course. The Dolphins are due to lose and they are at home. A double whammy. Right?

Well, not exactly.

Consider, for example, that the Browns have traveled to Miami six times over the years and won just once. That was 40 years ago when the NFL was a 16-team league and the Dolphins played in the American Football League. Since the merger the following season, the Browns are winless in five Miami trips.

Which, of course, means they are due. Right?

Well . . not exactly.

This one is a puzzler. The Dolphins are a Jekyll-Hyde team and the Browns are Team Unpredictable. You never know what you're going to get from week to week.

We know the Browns will be led again by Jake Delhomme, the notorious Captain Interception. The over/under on Delhomme picks Sunday is just one, however, because the Dolphins secondary is not noted for its ballhawking skills. To that end, the Dolphins cut Jason Allen, their leading interceptor with three, a few weeks ago after opposing teams started picking on him successfully.

They picked up veteran Al Harris as a free agent to stabilize the back end of their defense. With three second-year men in the secondary, two at cornerback, it was essential to bring a veteran presence back there. Harris and fellow veteran Benny Sapp should provide that experience.

The key for the Browns on offense is to neutralize Miami's large (they average 6-3 and all weigh about 250 pounds) and very active linebackers. All are extremely quick and fast, especially outside backers Tim Dobbins and Cameron Wake. Dobbins (6-1, 245 ) fills in for Channing Crowder, doubtful with a knee injury.

On offense, the Dolphins can hurt you in many different ways. Conventionally, it's with a 1-2 punch with Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams running behind an offensive line that averages 6-5 and 324 pounds. Although they've scrapped extensive use of the Wildcat with Brown as the trigger, they haven't totally abandoned it. But it's not something the Browns won't be prepared for since they run virtually the same scheme with Joshua Cribbs.

The big difference in the offense is the return to health of Chad Henne, who put up 307 yards and a couple of touchdowns last Sunday in the victory at Oakland. However, the former Michigan quarterback is prone to throwing the ball to the opposition as his 12 picks attest.

The Browns must pay particular attention to Davone Bess, the little wide receiver from Hawaii who is extremely dangerous in the red zone. And if leading receiver Brandon Marshall's hamstring prevents him from playing, look for Henne to target former Ohio State wideout Brian Hartline and tight end Anthony Fasano.

This one very well could turn into a defensive battle. The Browns are due for a good game on that side of the ball and the Dolphins have surrendered 56 points in their last three home games after giving up 72 in their first two.

Field goals should be the deciding factor as Phil Dawson and Dan Carpenter stage a duel. In the end, Miami finally wins another home game. Make it:

Dolphins 22, Browns 12

Time to move on?

Two conclusions reached after watching Lebron James embarrass his former teammates and franchise Thursday night at the Q.

James is -- and this is not arguable -- the best player in the National Basketball Association, And if you think that's easy to type after all the grief he has put Cavaliers Nation through the last six months, think again. Whether or not you like him or hate him, agree with him or disagree with him, there is not a better player in the NBA.

When the spotlight shines on him -- it didn't get any hotter than his first appearance at the Q since last May -- and he knows it, he brings it. I know that's hard to fathom considering how he essentially quit at the most critical juncture of the Boston playoff series.

But even the most ardent LeBron haters have to acknowledge that his virtuoso performance Thursday against the Cavaliers was the stuff of legend. He proved he can surmount pressure with the best of them.

When history looks back at his return to Cleveland, it will note his 38 points in 30 minutes. It will note the relative ease with which he scored those points. It will point out he was a man among boys. And it will point out he got the last laugh.

Fans will remember this game not for the constant booing and name-calling. And not for the almost too casual approach to the game by the Cavaliers. And not for the smack talk LeBron delivered his ex-mates during timeouts and his team at the foul line.

No, they'll remember this is as the night LeBron came home and delivered a message. A 38-point tour de force message that clearly stated he did not miss Cleveland at all. In fact, he seemed to relish in the glory of the Miami Heat's huge victory.

Conclusion No. 2: The Cavaliers are a bad basketball team. A very bad basketball team. What's worse is that it is a passive basketball team.

The Cavs laid down against the Heat in a game that desperately called for something far better. Like a fight. No, not a fistfight. The fans wanted to see them stand up to LeBron and his new teammates. Knock him on his hind flanks. Let him know he's not welcome in Cleveland any more. Fight for the City of Cleveland. That never happened.

The fans fought better with their signs and their mouths than the Cavaliers did with their so-called talents.

For the most part, this is the same team that dominated the NBA regular season last season. Nine members of the current team played on that team that fell to Boston in the playoffs last May. Among the missing are Delonte West, Shaquille O'Neal and, oh yes, LeBron James.

The catalyst, of course, is LeBron. Without him, the Cavaliers are what they have become. Less than mediocre. Their starting lineup might be the worst in the NBA. It was pointed out that the Cavs lead the league in bench scoring. That's because the starters are awful.

LeBron's departure has reduced the Cavs to a stature that, without some creative and intelligent moves by the front office in the offseason, could lead to the first stage of possible extinction. Attendance will start to fall precipitously. Cleveland fans will not pay to watch a bad team. They need another LeBron and they won't get one.

LeBron is one of those preciously few once-in-a-lifetime players who make a world of difference wherever he plays. Michael Jordan was like that. So, too, were Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Today, it's just LeBron and Kobe Bryant. Only LeBron was unable to bring a championship to his city.

Cleveland was blessed to have his considerable and special talents for seven seasons. The only reason he stayed that long was because the rules prevented him from moving elsewhere. And when those rules allowed him to wander, he did not hesitate.

For seven seasons, Cleveland fans thrilled to his wonderful, thrilling, even magical exploits. He alone placed the city back on the relevancy map in the sports world. Cleveland was where this new icon played and the city loved being in the spotlight. The thought of him leaving was never even considered. He was northeast Ohio, born and raised. Period. Cleveland and LeBron were a matched set.

That, crystal clearly, is no longer the case.

As TNT commentator Reggie Miller said during Thursday night's telecast, "It's time to get over it, Cleveland. It's time to move on."

Perhaps he's right now that LeBron's first visit back to the Q is history. There's nothing to be gained by holding on to the anger. Yet, there are those who will never forget his betrayal, never forget the way he departed. That vitriol will never die.

The hatred will continue, of course, and LeBron will receive the same treatment every time the Heat returns to Cleveland. That's to be expected. Along, of course, with a series of virtuoso performances.

After all, he hasn't even approached his prime. He won't be 26 years old until later this month.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Not so sweet homecoming

It's more than safe to say now that what unfolds Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena definitely will be the loudest, strangest and most spectacular sporting event in Cleveland this year.

It is already the most anticipated event of just about any kind in Cleveland since Game 5 of the Cavaliers-Boston Celtics playoff series last May 11. That was the night, you'll recall, when the fortunes of the Cavaliers took a decided turn for the worse. Only problem was no one knew it at the time.

Thursday night, a grim reminder of that evening reappears as not just the enemy, but the mortal enemy. LeBron James returns as a member of the Miami Heat to the building in which he became a basketball icon and singlehandedly placed Cleveland on the national sports map. To the sports world, he was Cleveland. City pride swelled with his exploits and the city adored him for it.

That's why the fans didn't know what to think, what to say about James' extremely questionable performance against the Celtics in that pivotal Game 5. Once the disbelief wore off, some said he choked. Some said he quit on the team.

The almost nonchalant manner in which he played that game belied what we had witnessed from him in his seven seasons with the Cavaliers. The desire, the drive, the almost maniacal hunger to excel was missing. His body language suggested he didn't care. He was not the LeBron James fans expected to see, perhaps unfairly, every game.

At the conclusion of that series one game later, James ripped off his Cavaliers Jersey as he headed for the dressing room and I wondered at the time just how symbolic was that gesture. As it turned out, much more symbolic than I ever imagined.

Ever since he "took my talents to South Beach" last July, James has been vilified by Cleveland sports fans as no other since Art Modell "had no choice" but to move the Browns to Baltimore in 1995. The visceral reaction that followed James' decision all but registered on the Richter Scale.

Cavaliers fans were angry, frustrated, disappointed. They felt betrayed by a young man who grew up in Akron and felt no compunction whatsoever when he turned his back on his hometown. Cleveland wasn't good enough for him anymore.

And that's why Thursday night's game takes on added importance to the emotional scene that will envelop the sports landscape. Because of James' departure, the Cavaliers have dropped off the national television map. Only two games this season. But you just knew the Heat's first trip to Cleveland would be one of them. The game has taken on so much importance, the TNT studio crew will be on hand at the Q. It'll definitely have a playoff atmosphere.

This will be more than just a game. It will be an event loaded with drama.

How will the fans react when James hits the floor for the first time? How will they react every time he touches the ball? How many points will he score in his first game back with the enemy? Will he attempt his patented powder toss before the opening tip? Will his teammates try and set him up to drop 50 on the Cavs?

How will James react to what almost certainly will be a hostile reception? The Cavaliers fear the worst if reports that security will be extraordinarily tight are to be believed. Cleveland fans can be nasty and downright mean. James knows that. He anticipates the worst.

"I'm ready for whatever response I'm going to get," he told "It's going to be very emotional. I give a lot of thanks to that city, a lot of thanks to those fans for giving me the opportunity to not only showcase my talent, but to grow from a young boy to a man during my seven years. . . . It's going to be fun, but at the same time, it's going to be very emotionally draining."

Hopefully, saner heads will prevail at the Q. Cleveland doesn't need another black mark for fan idiocy.

The Heat, which is at home tomorrow night and plays its third game in four nights against the Cavs, most likely will arrive with an 11-8 record and a simmering controversy over the unexpectedly average start this season, while the Cavs check in at 7-10.

One report suggests James and coach Erik Spoelstra don't see eye to eye on his role with the Heat. The young coach has James playing the point more than he did with the Cavaliers with mixed results. Rumors that club President Pat Riley will step out of his ivory tower and replace Spoelstra have proved unfounded. Thus far.

Another report strongly suggests Spoelstra has been a much stricter disciplinarian with James than Mike Brown ever was with the Cavs and he doesn't like it. That sounds more like it.

One thing is certain, however. James is the linchpin to the success of his team. He is their leader by example. As he goes, so go the Heat. This has become his team, something I didn't believe would happen with the presence of Dwyane Wade.

Bottom line is the Heat has way too much talent to struggle and the Cavaliers don't have enough talent to compete for post-season activity. They are teams headed in opposite directions. But that won't diminish what will take place Thursday night.

Chris Bosh, who completes the Heat's superstar trifecta, put the game in proper perspective. "I'm sure it'll be something we've never seen before."

Count on it.