Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The naysayer cometh

It's so easy to sit at the keyboard four days after the completion of the National Football League's college draft and indulge in soothsaying.

Isn't that what most people do after the draft experts, fans and pundits pick apart what the so-called experts supposedly accomplished in the three-day fleshfest that produces the NFL's future stars and busts?

To the pragmatists of the world, three years is the barometer by which to judge a draft. But like most everyone, we can't wait that long to judge how well -- or badly -- the Browns did and what kind of grade to apply to their efforts. No, this calls for more immediate action.

After the first two days, it was difficult to tell whether Dwight Clark, Butch Davis, Phil Savage and George Kokinis had sneaked back into 76 Lou Groza Blvd. and masqueraded as Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert. That's how iffy three of the club's first four picks were in the first couple of nights. Then they came back to complete the exercise in dart-throwing on day three and fared no better.

For a club that had ample opportunity to improve what clearly was the most needy side of the football, the H men failed, choosing instead to address a defense that actually played a lot better toward the end of last season.

At the same, Holmgren and Heckert ignored blazing red flags draped all over their two second-round choices (safety T.J. Ward and running back Montario Hardesty), choosing instead to go along with their medical team's positive evaluation.

Both men arrive with a litany of injuries. Ward had reconstructive surgery in high school on a ruptured patellar tendon; a torn MCL that required two surgeries in 2006 at Oregon; and a high ankle sprain that shut him down for five games in his senior season. But he also will be remembered for his 10-tackle game against Ohio State in this year's Rose Bowl.

Hardesty, a running back in the Jamal Lewis mold, has had major surgeries on both knees, a stress foot fracture, a high ankle sprain and a shoulder subluxation (a temporary dislocation of the shoulder joint).

These guys are an injury waiting to happen and yet, the Cleveland medical team geenlighted them. A major, major risk considering the violent nature of the game they play. No question the Browns could use a hard-hitting, missile-seeking safety and Hardesty gives the Browns toughness in the running game. But it'll be a cross-your-fingers situation every time they step on the field. They're no good to the club if they're injured and/or on injured reserve.

The selection of Joe Haden with the first pick makes sense in one aspect and no sense in another. Sure he was the best cornerback on the board, but he's not a shutdown type of corner, the kind you would take with the seventh overall pick.

Didn't Heckert already trade for Sheldon Brown to team with Eric Wright at the corners? Where does Haden fit into that equation? He'll start for certain, but whose time is going to cut? And don't even think about Brown shifting to safety. The switch is more difficult than one would think. Someone underserving is going to sit.

A smarter move would have been the selection of Iowa tackle Bryan Bulaga, the most NFL-ready offensive lineman in the draft. Somehow, the thought of Bulaga and Joe Thomas as bookend tackles for the next 10 seasons would have been ideal.

The key to the success of this draft for the Browns will be the development of Colt McCoy, who is determined to prove that smallish quarterbacks can win in the NFL. Will he be the next Drew Brees? Holmgren is gambling he will. We'll find out in 2011.

As for the remainder of the draft, the H men drafted projects. Guard Shawn Lauvao, safety Larry Asante, wide receiver Carlton Mitchell and defensive end Clifton Geathers are special teams fodder. Lauvao is too raw to step in right away; Asante, a hitter in the Ward mold, is a better run stopper than pass defender; Mitchell has speed and that's it; and Geathers is tall, that's all.

In summing up, Holmgren and Heckert came up with one solid pick, a couple of ifs, a quarterback who won't play in his rookie season and four projects.

Right now, that projects to a low C. But if Ward and Hardesty remain healthy and McCoy develops into the next Brees, that grade goes up substantially.

So sit back and wait. That's all we can do now.

Friday, April 23, 2010

And the beat goes on . . .

What in the world has caused Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert to think the Browns' secondary was disaster area? So much so that they made Oregon safety T. J. Ward the club's second-round pick in the NFL draft making Florida's Joe Haden their No. 1 pick.

Could it be because the Browns intercepted only 10 passes last season? Probably. But could it be that the reason for so few picks was a pass rush that was tepid at best and putrid at worst (the plundering of Ben Roethlisberger in the second game against the Pittsburgh Steelers notwithstanding)? It all starts at the line of scrimmage, an area that has yet to be addressed.

It's nice to see the H men have secured the services of one of the hardest-hitting safeties in the draft. It's nice to see they have landed a guy who lives and breathes football. It's nice to see they selected a young man who put up Troy Polamalu-like numbers at Oregon.

But what they apparently did not see -- or if they did were willing to gamble on -- is that Ward is an injury waiting to happen. With all due respect to his toughness, Ward has a problem staying healthy.

A knee injury ended his high school career in 2004. He missed just about all of the 2006 season at Oregon with another knee injury and was absent in half of the Ducks games this past season with an ankle injury.

When healthy, he's a hell of a football player. Ohio State fans might remember Ward for his 10-tackle performance against the Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl earlier this year. There is no question that when healthy, he has the opportunity to perform in a manner reminiscent of Polamalu or Ed Reed.

But what are the odds he'll maintain his health with the Browns? That's the gamble Holmgren and Heckert are willing to take. It's also the kind of gamble an established team might be willing to take. Not a team struggling to gain at least a measure of respectability. That would be the Browns.

Same old, same old

The more the faces change in the front office of the Cleveland Browns, the more they remain the same.

Instead of Dwight Clark or Butch Davis or Phil Savage or Eric Mangini running the war room for the Browns during the NFL college draft as in years past, Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert called the shots his year. And based on the first-round selection of cornerback Joe Haden, nothing has changed.

With the exception of Savage's selection of offensive tackle Joe Thomas in the first round of the 2007 lottery, the Browns' brain trust has whiffed on every opening-round selection. And you can include this year's pick in that group.

For a team that had an almost-deperate need for more help on offense, they chose to spend their tens of millions of first-round dollars on a relatively pint-sized cornerback.

The right side of the offensive line screamed for help. A game-busting running back would have been nice. And two of them were available.

C. J. Spiller, the slasher from Clemson, would have been a solid choice. And Bryan Bulaga, a ready-right-now offensive right tackle, was also there at No. 7. Probably the most technically sound offensive lineman in the draft, Bulaga would have been a solid fit and given the Browns young bookend tackles for the next 8-10 seasons.

Obviously, neither was not as highly rated on the Browns' board as Haden, whose selection only complicates the picture in the secondary. With incumbent Eric Wright and recent trade acquisition Sheldon Brown entrenched at the corners, where does Haden fit in? Who is he going to supplant?

"You can never have enough good cornerbacks," said Eric Mangini in an almost predictable rational explanation for the sudden position overload. "You can never have enough good (fill in the position)," goes the mantra. This year, it was cornerbacks. One gets the impression Mangini lobbied long and hard for the selection.

Top picks, especially those in the top 10, should be players who can have an impact on games. Make a difference. Haden, a nice player, but certainly not one over whom to get excited, is not that kind of player. He wasn't at the University of Florida and he won't be in the National Football League.

Such a player was available at No. 5 with Tennessee safety Eric Berry. But the Browns, according to reports, made no effort to move up to get him and the Kansas City Chiefs happily selected him. It'll be interesting to see how much of a difference Berry makes to the Chiefs' defense.

So once again, the first-round jinx strikes the Browns. It looks as though Murphy's Law has taken up permanent residence in Cleveland when it comes to first-round picks. Holmgren and Heckert acted much like Clark, Davis, Savage and Mangini in that regard. Very disappointing.

They've still got nine more picks to make up for it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

When winning means losing

Everyone in Browns Nation was so thrilled last season when the Browns shocked just about everyone in the NFL and won their final four games. Little did we know at the time how much of a negative impact that would have on the club's future.

As we head into the NFL's college draft in about 24 hours, the Browns are slated to pick seventh in the opening round and most likely will wind up with a pretty good player. But it just as likely won't be the player who can have a profound impact on the defense.

That's because safety Eric Berry, in all probability, will be off the board and the Browns will have to make a decision to take either a very good offensive tackle, such as Bryan Bulaga or Anthony Davis, or Earl Thomas, a young safety out of Texas who isn't ready yet for the NFL.

With only one full season as a collegian, Thomas is too raw to come in and make an immediate difference. And that's what the Browns need on defense. Berry can provide that impact. Thomas has too many flaws in his game. Berry is NFL ready, having learned the ins and outs of the league from Monte Kiffin, his defensive coordinator last season with the Volunteers and a legendary NFL veteran.

Had the Browns maintained their losing ways last season, when they played some of the worst football in franchise history, they would have been in a much more advantageous position to grab someone like Berry without worrying whether he'd be there. Winning put the club just far enough out of reach for the blue chippers. Imagine that. The Browns can't win for losing. But they can lose for winning.

As it is, Mike Holmgren, rather than having a no-brainer for his top pick, will be forced to make a command decision as to the club's course in the opening round of the truncated draft. Sitting at No. 7 and with Berry probably off the board, Holmgren might be tempted to trade down, pick up extra draft picks and target a different area such as quarterback.

Of course, the possibility exists that Holmgren and General Manager Tom Heckert will surprise us by trading up instead of down to secure someone like Berry. It certainly is within the realm of possibility. But they've got to be very careful not to pay too high a price for such a move.

If only they could have lost a couple of more games last season. The season was so far out of hand after the first 12 games, anyway, no one would have cared.

So close and yet so far.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cavaliers need higher gear

Maybe it was Mike Brown's decision to rest some of his stars in the final five games of the season. Then again, perhaps it's because the Chicago Bulls have overachieved in the first two games of the NBA playoff series with the Cavaliers.

Even though the Cavs won those two games, why does it seem as though they've been outplayed in the last six quarters by a team that barely scraped together enough victories to qualify for the postseason? Not you, LeBron. Without you and your brilliance, the Bulls have a two-game lead instead of the Cavaliers.

Cleveland racked up the best record during the regular season because it did the little things. Rarely did the Cavs lose the battle of the offensive boards. Rarely did they allow the opposition to dominate in the paint. Rarely did they come out on the short end in scrambles for loose balls. They outhustled the opposition.

Their seeming nonchalance against the Bulls is puzzling. It possibly could be a brief aftereffect of the prolonged layoff Brown gave a few of his men when home-court advantage throughout the playoffs was achieved with five games left in the season. Whatever the reason, the Cavs seem out of sync heading into the next two games in Chicago. It's almost as though they're too confident.

If they don't start playing with a greater sense of urgency and purpose, the Bulls just might sneak one out and prolong a series most everyone believed would not reach a fifth game.

Of course, the Cavs are going to eliminate the Bulls, but they'll have to get a whole lot better for the next round against the Boston Celtics (unless they stumble) if the postseason is to continue. If they hum along in the same gear against Boston that they're showing against the Bulls, summer vacation might arrive early. Talent goes just so far.

It's time to ratchet up the intensity a notch or three and then sustain it. It's time for the Cavaliers to take their game to the levels that helped make them the best team in the NBA. No more fooling around. There's way too much riding on the ultimate outcome.

Will Cleveland become Berryland?

The big question circulating around Browns Nation the last few weeks centers on what club President Mike Holmgren and General Manager Tom Heckert do in the first round of the NFL draft Thursday night.

Both men love to draft linemen on either side of the ball and there will be some very good ones from which to choose when the Browns go on the clock with the seventh pick. But there is one vital area that needs to be addressed pronto and it does not involve the line of scrimmage.

It has been way too long since the Browns have had a playmaker in the secondary, someone who can make a difference. And that someone will be there at a the top of the first round.

Eric Berry, if the scouts and personnel people around the NFL are to be believed, radiates with the kind of football talent that arrives in the scene as often as the 17-year locust. He is a game changer and would be a perfect fit in the Cleveland defensive backfield.

He's the kind of safety defensive coordinator Rob Ryan would salivate over as he envisions resurrecting his father's famed 46 defense of a quarter century ago. He could be what Troy Polamalu brings to the Pittsburgh Steelers or Ed Reed to the Baltimore Ravens. It wouldn't be shocking to learn that Ryan has already lobbied Holmgren/Heckert and probably even coach Eric Mangini to make Berry a Cleveland Brown. Give him uniform No. 46 and turn him loose.

What we don't know now is how much Holmgren and Heckert covet Berry. What we do know is that Berry's name has not been bandied about by either man as the pre-draft rhetoric ramps up to ridiculous heights. That could be a good sign. The less a first-round talent like Berry is talked about, the more likely he is being strongly considered.

What we also know is there a very good chance Berry will be off the board at No. 7 with either Kansas City and Seattle (at 5 and 6) poised to pounce. However, both teams need more help along the offensive line in order to keep their quarterbacks from getting beaten to a pulp and could move in that direction. But is that a risk the Browns are willing to take?

If Berry is the Browns' main objective and there is even a shred of uncertainty regarding his presence at No. 7, it would behoove the club to move up a couple of notches to No. 5 and remove all doubts. Gift the Chiefs the draft pick they acquired when they shipped Braylon Edwards to the New York Jets last season and get the deal done. It'll be worth it.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

And so it begins . . .

When it comes to talking Cleveland professional sports, there are no ground rules. And you can expect no ground rules with my latest venture into that realm.

Wandering into the blogosphere with my eyes wide open and my thoughts raring to be unleashed, this new adventure into the unknown will concentrate on Cleveland's professional football team with occasional side trips musing about the Indians, Cavaliers and, when the situation warrants, Ohio State athletics.

My opinions, as you will soon discover, do not always follow the norm. But I can assure you they are genuine, honest and designed with one thing in mind: the betterment of Cleveland sports. I, as most fans of Cleveland sports, want to see winning teams. They lift the spirit of a city (you can feel it right now with the Cavs). Inner pride swells to giddy levels.

The Indians produced that feeling a few years ago. And now, it's the Browns' turn. With Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert in charge, there is no question a very important corner has been turned. With these two in charge, the Browns have finally gained a legitimacy that has been lacking in Berea for more than a generation.

It's not going to happen overnight or, in this case, right after the NFL's college draft this week. The H guys have too many holes to fill, but at least we know their sage approach in reconstructing this team will lead to much more competitive football and ultimate appearances in the postseason.

Some of their off-season moves proved puzzling. Still can't understand why Holmgren didn't cashier Eric Mangini. He has reconstructed just about the entire front office except for the head coach, a man whose coaching style flies in the face of his boss. You can bet Mangini will be at the end of a very short and tight leash this season.

And signing Jake Delhomme, way past his prime and falling fast, to quarterback the team this season strains the the credibility of Holmgren's reputation as a quarterbacks guru. And to think that Delhomme, whose greatest asset is his ability to take charge in a huddle, is getting paid $7 million to do so makes one wonder just what Holmgren saw.

Remember the last time the Browns signed a quarterback with a similar air of confidence? It was 2005 and his name was Trent Dilfer, who flashed a Super Bowl ring (with the Ravens). He sauntered into Cleveland in Romeo Crennel's rookie season and proceeded to sustain his love affair with mediocrity as the Browns finished 6-10. He was gone after one injury-filled season.

Other than that, Holmgren and Heckert seem to be making the right moves. It'll be interesting to see which side of the ball they address first in the draft. As it stands now, the offense needs more help, particularly the right side of the line. Fortunately, that area is well stocked at the top of the lottery with the likes of Bryan Bulaga, Russell Okung and Trent Williams. Any of the three would make a nice fit and shoved Tony Pashos to guard.

However, if Eric Berry somehow sneaks past the top six teams, the H guys would be nuts to pass on him. Rarely does a safety of Berry's extreme talent come along. And while drafting a safety as high as the seventh overall pick is unusual, so is someone with Berry's extraordinary talent. He's a difference maker and that's something the Browns cannot afford to pass up.

Another possibility is quarterback Jimmy Clausen, But the likelihood of the Notre Damer landing in Cleveland is remote. That's because Holmgren earlier had made lukewarm remarks regarding Clausen and then backtracked on them. And if one follows the theory that the more someone talks about a player, the less likely he will be selected, there's no way Clausen wears the Seal Brown and Orange next season.

Besides, nobody tells the truth anyway in the 4-6 weeks leading up the draft.