Sunday, February 13, 2011

The soft general manager

Read with interest the other day Tony Grossi’s interview in the Cleveland Plain Dealer with Browns General Manager Tom Heckert Jr. regarding some of the personnel mysteries surrounding the 2010 season.

In it, Grossi gleaned some rather interesting answers to several questions as he delved into why certain personnel moves were made. Interesting, that is, in the sense they were rather astonishing in nature.

For example, when asked why running back Jerome Harrison was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in mid-October, Heckert said coach Eric Mangini lobbied for the deal.

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t have (traded Harrison) because Jerome . . . he wasn’t begging to get out of here, but he was acting like he wanted to get out of here,” the GM told Grossi. “It wasn’t going to do is a whole lot of good to keep him here. Jerome was kind of going through the motions. I think he thought he should have been playing more.”

Then in answer to why the Browns, who concentrated on a run-first offense, pass-second offense, kept only two running backs and seven wide receivers on the roster, he answered thusly:

“I don’t know how to answer that one,” Heckert told Grossi. “I think (the RB depth) was good for a while. When we had Peyton (Hillis), Jerome and a couple of other guys, we were OK. But once Eric wanted us to get rid of Jerome, that’s when it started (going bad). Once you get rid of that guy, then it’s just tough to find guys.”

Now wait a minute. Wait just a darned minute.

Who is the general manager of the Browns? And who is (or was) the coach of the Browns last season?

Whatever happened to the notion that the general manager is responsible for the makeup of the roster and the coach coaches that roster? Whatever happened to a clear division of authority?

Heckert was hired to general manage the team. Mangini was hired to coach the team. Heckert was Mangini’s boss. A clear division of authority, right? It shouldn’t be any simpler than that.

A blatant lack of that division of authority is what has messed up the Browns the last dozen years. That was supposed to stop with the arrival of Heckert and Mike Holmgren. One has to wonder if that, indeed, is the case.

Mangini didn’t want the recalcitrant Harrison around? Too damn bad. It’s up to Mangini and his coaches to maximize whatever talent the GM assembles for them. That includes Harrison, who ostensibly was not a troublemaker. All he wanted was more playing time and Mangini, for whatever reason, was not giving it to him.

Heckert should have told Mangini that Harrison was going nowhere. He should have said something like, “Just go out there and coach him up like you did in the 2009 season. You’re the head coach. Now go out and do your job.”

After all, this was the same Jerome Harrison who ripped off 561 yards in the last three games of the 2009 season and was the main reason the Browns finished strong to salvage what most certainly would have been a monumental disaster.

Instead of doing that, Heckert took the easy way out. He caved and listened to his coach, making a deal that hamstrung his team. It was a classic case of the tail wagging the dog.

Mangini told us from time to time last season that he, Heckert and Holmgren were on the same page with regard to the roster and the direction of the team. Another Mangini swerve, as it turned out.

And what’s this “I don’t know how to answer that one” response to Grossi’s question regarding the two-RB, seven-WR roster? Anyone in a responsible position such as Heckert should never admit to not knowing how to answer a question. Never.

Dance around the question. Change the subject. Anything to avoid being boxed into a corner.

Later in the interview, Grossi asked Heckert why the Browns traded for defensive end Jayme Mitchell in early October, placed him on the active roster and then failed to play him.

He called Mitchell’s disappearance from the playing field “bizarre” and admitted “he was by far our best pass rusher and never got on the field, so I can’t answer that one. Eric (Mangini) watched him (on tape prior to the trade) and liked him. So I don’t know what happened after that.”

You’re the general manager and you don’t what happened? You “can’t answer that one”? That’s part of your job. It’s your job to know everything about your team from a personnel standpoint.

And if you don’t know, seek out the answers. Don’t admit you don’t know what happened. Don’t admit not knowing how to answer a question.

You’re the general manager for crying out loud. Act like one.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

It's purge time

And so the purge begins.

Reluctant last season to strip the roster during their first trip, Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert Jr. chose the safe road through the 2010 season. Right to a 5-11 finish.

So thank you very much, Eric Mangini. There’s the door. Hit it and don’t come back.

Now that Mangini is gone, a number of the players he brought to Cleveland have begun the same march out of town with Wednesday’s announcement that Shaun Rogers, Eric Barton, David Bowens, John St. Clair, Kenyon Coleman and Robert Royal are outta here. All but Rogers is a Mangini guy.

With their long-overdue departure, the Browns have automatically become younger. Significantly younger.

Barton is a 13-year veteran; St. Clair has been around for a dozen seasons; Rogers is an 11-year guy; Bowens has managed to stick around for 13 seasons; and Coleman and Royal have been collecting paychecks for 10 years.

All most will likely find employment elsewhere around the National Football League next season because they are serviceable. Just not in Cleveland.

The Browns were one of the oldest teams, if not the oldest, in the NFL last season, as they struggled to become competitive. This trimming of the fat, no pun intended, is just the first move. There’s plenty more to come. This is just the beginning.

Many familiar names who contributed so lamely to the 5-11 record will fall by the wayside in the not-too-distant future as the shape of the Browns changes dramatically.

Holmgren and Heckert undoubtedly have a plan to restore this franchise to its former glory and their vision does not include some of the underachievers that have populated Cleveland rosters the last several seasons.

On the bubble are such luminaries (sarcasm intended) as Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Abram Elam, Ray Ventrone, Matt Roth, Marcus Benard, Pork Chop Womack, Nick Sorensen, Kaluka Maiava, Alex Smith, Chansi Stuckey, Brian Schaefering, Robaire Smith and Jason Trusnick. Most of them are Mangini guys.

When Holmgren and Heckert are through, this will make Mangini’s plundering of the roster of Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel seem tame by comparison. It’s time to change the culture on this team and they know it.

So any resemblance between the 2010 roster and the one that opens the 2011 season – how’s that for being optimistic the league and NFLPA will get together on a new collective bargaining agreement? – will be strictly coincidental.

There are going to be a lot of new faces on the new Cleveland roster and, given Heckert’s reputation for solid drafting, brighter days are ahead for Browns fans. During his watch as general manager in Philadelphia, the Eagles became one of the most powerful teams in the NFL on an annual basis.

Watching the 2010 version of the Browns had to be painful for the H&H men, both of whom are not used to watching bad football. And both men know the quickest way to become relevant and competitive in the NFL is via the college draft.

All you have to do is look at the rosters of the two teams in the most recent Super Bowl to realize how true that is. It’s about time Cleveland joined the parade.

So carry on, men. Let the purge continue.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Spoiling the spoils

In the wake of the enormous success of Super Bowl XLV, it’s extraordinarily difficult to imagine why the millionaires and billionaires of professional football are on the verge of shutting down the sport.

After drawing the largest audience in the history of television Sunday, the popularity of pro football has exploded even more, if that’s possible, reaching a zenith heretofore only dreamed of.

Watched at one time by roughly half the population of the United States, the sport has evolved into what Pete Rozelle, the late commissioner of the National Football League, envisioned when he hauled the league into the 20th century with his prescient thinking.

The NFL has never been more popular despite a couple of player strikes that would have seriously damaged other leagues. It is almost always the No. 1 topic on talk shows all around the country.

The National Basketball Association and National Hockey League are midway through their seasons and yet, most fans want to talk about professional football around the watercooler.

So why in the world would the players and owners risk damaging that popularity with either a lockout (by the owners) or a strike by the players (if the owners bring in replacement players) should the two sides fail to get together on a new collective bargaining agreement by March 3?

That makes absolutely no sense. In a business that generates $11 billion in revenues, why is it so difficult for the two sides to get together and hammer out a deal? The definitive answer is greed.

The two sides do not trust each other. The players don’t want the owners to get a lion’s share of the profits. And the owners believe the players are paid well enough to begin with.

The players want nearly 60% of the profits, while the owners’ bottom line is somewhere in the 55% range. Each side has drawn a line in the sand and seems unwilling to budge.

Both sides are hurling the normal bargaining rhetoric, which is to be expected. This time, however, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is taking a pro-active stance. While not getting directly involved in the negotiations, he appears to be moving the process along at a brisker pace than it would be had he remained neutral.

No doubt he realizes that if there is another work stoppage, it will be difficult for the league to explain to the fans the reasons behind it. And even though a stoppage would take place well before the start of a new season, it sends the wrong kind of message.

Such a move risks alienating those fans, many of whom will have trouble understanding why, especially in this economy, it’s so hard for the two sides to equitably divvy up this massive amount of money.

The NFL right now is the golden calf of sports. It makes money hand over fist. Its popularity is at its pinnacle. It doesn’t get any better than this.

And in the afterglow of the Super Bowl, it is incumbent on the players and owners to strike a deal instead of dealing with a strike.

Monday, February 7, 2011

First mistake

Now that the dust has settled on the Browns’ coaching staff, time for an early assessment.

First off, and most important, new head coach Pat Shurmur is making a huge mistake in anointing himself offensive coordinator. By insisting on calling plays, that’s exactly what he’ll be, albeit unofficially.

It’s hard enough to be a head coach with no interference. Add coordinator to that title and you are asking for trouble.

As a rookie head coach, Shurmur will have enough problems handling an entire team’s fortunes. There are way too many responsibilities for a head coach that preclude any outside interference.

One of the most important roles any head coach must perform is the ability to coach his coaches. Let them know exactly what he expects from them. But when one of those coaches is himself as a coordinator, that’s a problem.

There is no way Shurmur can juggle both jobs and be effective. When he’s worrying about his side of the ball, who is going to be worrying about the other side of the ball? Or the special teams?

It is the head coach’s job to maintain responsibility for the entire package. And if his mind is distracted by a problem with the offense, that most likely will affect his focus in other areas and impact negatively on the entire team.

Shurmur says its fun to call plays, something he did the last two seasons in St. Louis with the Rams. But how much fun can it be when other parts of the team are being virtually ignored?

Concentrating on improving an awful Cleveland offense is primary and Shurmur obviously recognizes that. But he has to learn to delegate and rely on his assistants in order to have a shot at becoming successful.

When important decisions have to be made during a game, his mind cannot be thinking about the next series of plays for the offense. It must be clear to make snap judgments at critical times.

It would be entirely different if he were a veteran head coach who can juggle several balls in the air like Mike McCarthy does in Green Bay. McCarthy scripts everything offense with the Packers and has enough grasp of what’s going on that it does not impair his judgment.

Returning the Browns to respectability, at the very least, should be Shurmur’s primary goal initially. Nothing should interfere with it. Coordinating the offense does just that.

In choosing Dick Jauron as his defensive coordinator, the new coach most likely will be hands off since it’s the opposite side of the ball, one with which is he is far less familiar. The question is whether Jauron plugs in his style of defense or caters to the whims of his new boss.

It’ll be interesting to see whether Shurmur wants Jauron to dial up a more aggressive stance on defense or resort to the more mundane bend-not-break style of play. The return to the 4-3 scheme suggests it will be the latter.

The other pieces and parts of the coaching staff are just that. Nothing about which to get excited, although Mike Wilson replacing George McDonald as receivers coach is a clear upgrade.

If there is one area on offense that needs the most help, it’s the receiving corps. And with the installation of the West Coast offense, it is the receivers who play the most important role. Just look at what Green Bay’s receivers did in the Super Bowl victory over Pittsburgh Sunday.

Wilson, who owns a few Super Bowl rings, was a wideout for the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s when Browns President Mike Holmgren was a coach on that staff. And that team featured the West Coast look.