Thursday, April 21, 2011

Playing a game of if

If I’m Browns General Manager Tom Heckert Jr., I would . . .

* Curse my former coach for winning too many games last season and dropping to the sixth slot in the first round of the National Football League’s college draft next week.

That’s right. If Eric Mangini had lost just one more game, the Browns would have tied Denver, Buffalo and Cincinnati at 4-12 and sneaked ahead of 5-11 Arizona into the top five, maybe as high as two. And in this year’s draft, that’s vital.

That’s because there are only four elite players there for the picking. The kind of players who can come in right away and not only make the team, but start and become an impact player.

All four most likely will be gone when the Browns go on the clock next Thursday in day one of the truncated lottery. Their only hope is if a couple of teams ahead of them develop severe brain cramps and make an odd selection.

The Cincinnati Bengals, selecting at No. 4, quite probably will take wide receiver A.J. Green, who would look great in a Cleveland uniform and provide immediate help to a sickly offense. Bitter pill for Browns fans to ingest.

Cornerback Patrick Peterson, arguably the best athlete in the draft, won’t be there at No. 6. Look for the Denver Broncos to snap him up at No. 2. But if the Broncos pass on Peterson, the Arizona Cardinals won’t three picks later.

Outside linebacker Von Miller, the best pass rusher in this draft class, probably won’t get past Buffalo at No. 3. And it would also be shocking if the best defensive lineman, tackle Marcell Dareus, is still on the board at No. 6. The Browns need help along the defensive line in a serious way, but so do the Broncos.

So there you have it. The four best players. Gone. There sit the Browns in prayer mode. With their fingers crossed. And unless the Cardinals opt for a quarterback, say Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert, Heckert will be forced to make a command decision.

* Not draft wide receiver Julio Jones (drops too many passes), defensive ends Robert Quinn (didn’t play at all last season), and Da’Quan Bowers (injury history) or defensive tackle Nick Fairley (another Gerard Warren?). If I’m picking sixth overall, I want the best player at his position. And by taking the aforementioned trio, I’m settling for second-best.

* Look for a trading partner and move down in the first round because I can get a very good player several slots lower and an extra draft pick. Preferably a second- or third-rounder. Not too low, mind you. Say around 11 or 12. If Gabbert and Auburn’s Cam Newton are gone, Minnesota at No. 12 might try to move up because they need a quarterback. Then I’d go after the best offensive tackle on the board because the right side of my offensive line needs help in a far out way.

* Welcome the suggestions of Mike Holmgren, but remind him that I’m pretty good at this drafting thing and I’d appreciate it if he kept most of his opinions to himself unless a quarterback is involved in the discussion.

* Look for that wide receiver I didn’t get in the first round (unless I get real lucky and Green falls to us) on the second day. A guy like Leonard Hankerson would look good. Had a pretty good game against Ohio State last season. Nice size, good speed and he catches most everything thrown his way.

* Wait until the middle rounds to go after the pass rushers Dick Jauron needs for his 4-3 scheme. I discovered Trent Cole in 2005 for Philadelphia in round five. If I could do it there, I can do it with the Browns. The hidden gems are out there. I love digging for and then unearthing them.

* Not be satisfied with the secondary and look for some help for T. J. Ward and Joe Haden. Hopefully, I can get lucky two years in a row. There should be some good secondary guys there on day three of the draft.

* Expect to come out of this year’s draft with as many starters as last season. And if Montario Hardesty and Shaun Lauvao can stay healthy, that number climbs to five. If we get lucky and come up with four or five more starters this year, I won’t have to curse our coach for not losing enough games. We’ll be good enough to drop at least into the middle of the pack. And for the Browns, that’s a giant leap forward.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Quadrant quandary

Breaking down the Browns’ schedule for 2011 . . . should it ever be played.

It’s really very simple. The best way to look at it is in quadrants.

For example, the Browns play three of their first four games at home, a trip to Indianapolis in week two breaking up home visits from Cincinnati, Miami and Tennessee.

The second quarter of the season has the Browns playing three of their next four games on the road following the bye week in week 5. This will prove the most torturous four-game stretch (from a travel standpoint) with trips to Oakland and San Francisco sandwiched around a visit in week 7 by Seattle. It concludes with a trip to Houston in week 9.

The third set of four games brings the Browns back home for three against St. Louis, Jacksonville and Baltimore broken up by a trip to Cincinnati to face the Bengals in week 12.

Then it’s back on the road again to wrap up the season with three straight games in Pittsburgh (a Thursday night affair on Dec. 8), Arizona and Baltimore before winding up the season at home on New Year’s Day against the Steelers.

Unlike last season, when the Browns traveled outside the Eastern Time zone just once (New Orleans), three of their eight journeys this season are out west with stops in San Francisco, Oakland and Arizona.

West Coast trips are difficult enough on football teams because of the time change, but when two of them (Oakland and San Francisco) are just a couple of weeks apart, that very well could have a telling physical effect on the Browns.

They knew they would have to make at least two trips west, but never figured on something like this. It appears as though someone in the National Football League scheduling department does not like Cleveland.

After opening the season again at home (for the 12th time in 13 seasons since the return in 1999) against Cincinnati, the Browns do not meet another AFC North opponent until week 12 when they return the favor and travel to Cincinnati.

In fact, five of their last six games are against division opponents. Only the trip to Glendale, Ariz., to play the Cardinals in week 15 breaks up the AFC North scheduling. The NFL wanted division games down the homestretch, but this is ridiculous.

It’s way too early to start making predictions on the Browns’ season, although it’s always a lot of fun – and very tempting – to do so. Too many variables with which to deal. Like who’s going to be on the roster? And whom are they going to draft?

And the most important variable. Is there really going to be a 2011 season?

If there is, it’s best to break it down into the aforementioned quadrants for the Browns. Separate them and use them as a guide to how the club performs.

It wouldn’t be surprising if coach Pat Shurmur does it that way. You know the routine. Treat games 1, 5, 9 and 13 as though they are the first games of a series. Wipe the slate clean after games 4, 8 and 12.

Crazy? You bet. But coaches always look for psychological ways to climb into their players’ heads. Why not this way? What does Shurmur have to lose?

Don't answer. Rhetorical question.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Someone please pinch me

What in the world has happened to the Indians? And why has it happened?

First place in the American League Central Division 14 games into the season? Am I dreaming? Is this the same team that broke camp less than two weeks ago with question marks in abundance?

Lots of questions, to be sure. Some of the answers are obvious. Like good pitching and clutch hitting equals lots of victories. Throw in some solid defense and you have the prescription for such a start.

Problem is no one saw it coming. And even if it doesn’t last, it sure feels nice to experience a winning feeling for at least a little while.

While this topsy-turvy beginning – the Tribe and Kansas City sharing the top spot in the division!! – could very well evolve into a just another wasted season by the lakefront, at least it has grabbed the attention of the baseball world.

Who figured the Flying Cabreras in the middle of the infield would produce with their bats (25 runs batted in) and gloves (only one error)? Asdrubal at shortstop and Orlando at second base have been nothing short of sensational thus far.

And what in the world has happened to Matt LaPorta? The first baseman actually shows signs of being the player the Indians thought they got in the C.C. Sabathia trade with Milwaukee a few years ago.

Now throw in the apparent rejuvenation of designated hitter Travis Hafner and the surprising leadoff hitting of center fielder Michael Brantley. Where in the world did all this come from?

When the Indians broke camp in Goodyear, Ariz., they looked like a team headed for mediocrity. Very little clutch hitting, below-average starting pitching, an iffy bullpen and a suspect defense.

The encouraging part of this whole scenario is the Indians are doing it without the contributions of Shin-Soo Choo, Carlos Santana and Grady Sizemore, their best hitters. Choo and Santana are buried deep in offensive slumber, although Choo appears to be coming around. And Sizemore, who played his first game Sunday, is still a question mark.

But it’s the pitching that has surprised everyone. After being hammered for 23 runs by the Chicago White Sox in the first two games of the season, Indians pitching has surrendered just 24 runs in the last 12.

After giving up 147 home runs last season, Cleveland pitchers so far this season have limited the opposition to a measly 10 round trippers. The opposition has hit just .216 against the staff.

Starters Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson, Josh Tomlin, Carlos Carrasco and Mitch Talbot have been nothing short of spectacular. It’ll be interesting to see who comes up from Columbus to replace Talbot, who went on the disabled list Sunday.

Even more spectacular has been the bullpen. Closer Chris Perez and setup men Tony Sipp, Raffy Perez and Vinnie Pestano have been solid. Combined, they have allowed just one earned run in 24 innings. If that continues, there’s no telling what will unfold this season.

Defensively, the Indians have made just six errors and average two double plays a game. Two of those errors were committed by Tomlin, a pitcher. Asdrubal Cabrera, third baseman Jack Hannahan and LaPorta committed the only infield miscues.

When seeking out formulas for winning games, pitching and defense head the list. And with the numbers the Indians are producing in those vital areas, it’s no wonder they sit atop the Central Division.

Now all they have to do is play at or near those numbers for the next 148 games and a lot of Cleveland sports fans just might put the National Football League’s labor problems on the backburner.

(All stats are prior to Sunday’s game against Baltimore.)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Smoke in the mirror

The more you hear regarding the National Football League’s college draft later this month, the more you should ignore.

Veteran observers who zealously follow the annual lottery know most of what comes out of the 32 war rooms prior to the selections is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. Believe it and you’re fooling only yourself.

It’s a game all the teams play. No one knows for certain why. Perhaps it’s because the cloak-and-dagger approach gives them a thrill. Then again, the paranoid minds that dot the NFL landscape are perfect fodder for such behavior.

One would think that after all these years, this kind of pre-draft nonsense would at least slow down to the point where it would be considered silly. But as along as some take it seriously, it will continue.

It all feeds perfectly into the NFL public relations machine that whirs along on a 365-day rotation. If it gets people talking and thinking NFL, why not? That’s what the league is all about.

And given that the league’s PR image is taking a beating what with the labor unrest and uncertainty about whether they’ll be a 2011 season, perhaps the blathering that leads up to the draft isn’t so bad after all. At least from the league’s point of view.

It is interesting to watch the hundreds of draft gurus (at least it seems as though there are that many) taking stabs at predicting what will happen April 28-30. Some are already on their eighth version. And we still have about two weeks left.

There are so many possibilities regarding the top 10 picks. And with the Browns picking sixth, many of their fans hang on what some of those gurus are predicting. Actually take them seriously. Only problem is these so-called experts can’t seem to make up their minds.

One week, it’s Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green to the Browns. Wait a minute. Cincinnati will take Green. Make that Clemson defensive end Da’Quan Bowers. What’s that? Bowers will be gone, too?

In that case, it’ll be either Alabama wideout Julio Jones (then again maybe not because he drops too many passes – shades of Braylon Edwards) or North Carolina defensive end Robert Quinn (then again maybe not because he missed the entire 2010 season because of an NCAA violation and he might be rusty).

But what if quarterbacks Cam Newton and/or Blaine Gabbert drop to No. 6? Then what? Didn’t Browns President Mike Holmgren indicate the club would select a quarterback? Sure did. But in the first round?

Smoke and mirrors.

Cleveland General Manager Tom Heckert Jr. obviously knows how to play the game, too. Asked recently if he’ll take the best available player or place a greater emphasis on need, he replied, “ . . . we’re going to take the best available player. If you have two players rated the same, then you can go with need.”

It appears as though he’s getting better with the non-answer because the two greatest needs he has are wide receiver and defensive line. And the top half of the first round draft is loaded with good receivers and defensive linemen.

What about the possibility of trading out of the sixth slot? “Right now,” Heckert said, “we’re going through different scenarios. If we trade up, whom do we trade up for? If we trade back, whom can we still get? Those are the things we’re pretty much thinking of.”

In other words, try to guess what I’m going to do because I have no idea.

Fun and games. And we still have almost two more weeks of it.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Scar tissue

How serious are National Football League owners as they battle the players for power? If their attendance at court-ordered mediation in Minneapolis Thursday is any indication, not serious at all is the operative answer.

There are 32 owners in the NFL and only four answered “present” when the two sides met in an effort to stop the silliness that has resulted in a lockout. Showing league pride for the billionaires were owners from Carolina, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and New England.

That’s it. Everyone else (a) was too busy, (b) out of the country, (c) couldn’t care less or (d) all of the above. Judging from the meager attendance, (c) seems to be the front-runner. It certainly appears the owners don’t give a rat’s behind how long it takes to get this labor action resolved.

Wonder where Randy Lerner was. Probably stressing over his Aston Villa soccer team. Figures. When it comes to league matters, the Browns owner seems to cower behind the league’s movers and shakers.

The disdain the owners show now toward the players is more than palpable. It has become quite apparent they have dug in their heels and will not accept a Collective Bargaining Agreement as player friendly as the last time.

When Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson and Pittsburgh boss Dan Rooney objected strenuously to the last CBA, they were laughed at and ignored. That’s not going to happen this time.

In the last CBA, Paul Tagliabue was the NFL commissioner and Gene Upshaw headed the NFL Players Association. At the time, it was suggested that Tagliabue and Upshaw colluded to maintain labor peace just for the purpose of maintaining labor peace.

It was a convenience of sorts since Tagliabue did not want to exit as commissioner with a stain (lockout/strike) on his reputation and persuaded the owners to accept what turned out to be a bad deal.

That’s one of the popular theories that emerged from the last CBA agreement and no one has refuted it. However, the staunch stand the owners have taken now is a broad indication that was exactly the case.

If the owners continue to scornfully thumb their noses at the players and the players continue to engage in name-calling, the courts can order all the mediation they want. It will all be futile.

It looks as though the kissing and hugging and saying “we didn’t mean anything personal” conclusion to this mess is a lot farther into the future than some people thought. It very well could reach many more bitter stages before a resolution, leaving scars that might not heal for a very long time.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Ban the barristers

As long as attorneys are in charge of solving the problems between the owners and players in the National Football League, nothing will get accomplished.

The only way to get this Collective Bargaining Agreement thing settled is for Commissioner Roger Goodell to step in, tell the barristers for both sides to take a hike, then lock the principals of both parties in the same room. For a week.

That’s how long it would take for this whole mess to go away. Maybe less.

Get these rich bastards in that room and make them talk. Make them see each other’s side in the money war. Make them have a better understanding of where each side is coming from.

Provide certain creature comforts, but make damn sure no one leaves that room for a protracted period of time unless there’s a good excuse. The longer this lockout lasts, the more each side has to lose.

Sure, it’s only the middle of April. The season doesn’t officially begin until late July with training camps. That’s more than three months away. “What’s the hurry?” say the optimists. This’ll get done sooner rather than later.

Not if attorneys are involved.

Now getting the two sides to agree to such a move poses yet another problem. Goodell, if he really means what he says about wanting all this to just go away, is in a position to demand such a move.

He is the commish after all, the man with the power to make things happen. Yes, he does the owners’ bidding for the most part, but there are certain things he can do in the best interests of the game, in the best interests of the shield. This is one of those times.

In an economy still seeking to find a way out of its morass, neither side is gaining any sympathy with the paying public with their constant sniping. They play a silly game of name calling and finger pointing. They fight like spoiled little children.

They say things they later regret. Derrick Mason, for example, calling Goodell “a joke” is a prime example. The only joke is when Mason opens his mouth and words like that tumble out.

No doubt when this is all settled, the Baltimore wide receiver will come out and say something like, “Aw, I didn’t really mean it. It was all part of the rhetoric, you know. He’s really a good guy.”

It is time for Goodell to march in and for the attorneys to march out. It is time for these grownups to start acting like grownups. Both sides are losing the public relations battle with the fans.

And while they are certain to lose at least a fraction of their vast constituency because of all the childish behavior, both sides arrogantly believe the financial repercussions will be small. The game will thrive no matter what.

The sad part of this little play in way too many acts is that it’s true. The game will survive no matter what. Too bad it has been tarnished by the legal community.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The blame game

Anyone surprised by the shenanigans unfolding on a daily basis regarding the lockout in the National Football League?

No surprise here. It’s a joke. And will continue to be a joke a lot longer than anyone wants. Especially the fans.

The silly and stupid charges being hurled by both sides in the matter is predictable. Comes with the territory. That’s just the way it is when two labor factions agree on only one thing – to disagree.

All over the country, fans are being asked on Web sites to finger the guilty party. Who’s to blame for the lockout? In most cases, they don’t care who’s responsible. They’re tired of this bullroar. They just want to see an end to all this nonsense.

Fact of the matter is both parties are responsible. Both sides are wrong. Both sides should be ashamed of themselves for hanging out to dry the most important people. You, the fans.

The billionaires and millionaires are fighting over the money that you, the fans, willingly shell out in order to watch the product they produce. They’re battling over how to split the proceeds you choose to part with on Sunday afternoons in the fall and winter.

And the irony in this entire matter is neither side cares what you think. All they care about is the bottom line, that line that fattens their wallets. That’s the sum and substance of what drives each side.

All they want is to get you to come and watch the product. They don’t care about your emotions. They say they do, but they really don’t.

In this bottom-line world of ours, the most beautiful sight to each side are stadiums with no empty seats. That means only one thing. And that should be very obvious by now.

Some day, they two sides will capitulate. They always do. And the fans will rejoice. A vast majority of them will forgive. They always do. And then, it’ll be same old, same old.

But until that day, a pox on both their houses.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Important draft

Time to check out the first round of the draft and its potential impact on the Browns.

No question the Browns need help in way too many areas for the upcoming lottery to have a significant impact on the 2011 season. If, that is, there is a 2011 season.

One thing is certain: If Tom Heckert Jr. drafts as well this season as he did last season, brighter days are ahead for Browns fans.

The general manager, who helped Andy Reid turn the Philadelphia Eagles into a perennial contender, came up with two starting defensive backs and a starting quarterback last year with the jury still out on a running back and guard. Not a bad start at all.

There is no question he is a solid talent evaluator, something the Browns haven’t had since . . . well . . . since I can’t remember when. He is much better at evaluating talent than his boss, Mike Holmgren, who has proven he is a much better coach than GM.

Holmgren can help new coach Pat Shurmur in ways Heckert can’t. But if the club president devotes more time to his head coach than the ordinary president, he hired the wrong man.

But I digress.

This is about the draft, more specifically the first rounds. The Browns own two of the first 37 picks in the college lottery and it’s incumbent upon Heckert to make it two straight years in the bull’s-eye department.

So what do the Browns need most? Two correct answers. A game-changing wide receiver and immediate help on a defensive line bereft of bodies now that the club has switched to a 4-3 scheme.

Several names pop into focus in both areas and one of those names will be available when National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell places the Browns on the clock with pick number 6.

The draftophiles know them well. A. J.Green and Julio Jones, a couple of Southeastern Conference standouts, are head and shoulders better than any other wide receiver. Along the defensive line, there are Da’Quan Bowers, Nick Fairley, Marcell Dareus, Robert Quinn and Ryan Kerrigan. Dareus, Bowers, Quinn and Kerrigan are ends and that’s where the Browns need help the most along the defensive front.

The Cleveland secondary needs help in the form of quarterback pressure. That pressure must come from the defensive ends in the 4-3. The 3-4 was an abysmal failure in that regard under Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini.

So where does Heckert go? Which does he fix first? An offense that was the second lowest in scoring in the NFL last season? Or a defense that wasn’t that bad for the first 12 games then wore out because of that sad offense?

Conventional wisdom says defense wins games. But what if someone like Green somehow slips to the Browns at 6? How can Heckert pass up a player who caught just about everything thrown his way at Georgia and who can help Colt McCoy ease into his transition as a West Coast offense quarterback?

If Green and, say. Fairley or Dareus are there, too, where does he go? Is it a win-win situation? Does he go with the No. 1 wideout or the second- or third-best defensive lineman?

Easy. You go with the best at his position. Besides, in this case, the talent at wide receiver in this draft is not nearly as deep as the defensive line.

Now if Green is snapped up before Heckert can make his move, that brings into play a wild card heretofore unmentioned. Louisiana State cornerback Patrick Peterson, the second-best player in this draft after Green, would look great in a Cleveland uniform.

Picture Joe Haden at one corner on one side of the field and Peterson at the other and visions of Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon dance in my head. More than a generation ago, these two formed unquestionably the best cornerback tandem in the NFL.

They were fearless despite working with a pass rush that made their jobs that much more difficult.

Now if Green and Peterson are not on the board for Heckert, the defensive line selection becomes a no-brainer.

Somehow, though, I believe one will be there because some team in the top five is going to make a mistake and draft quarterback Cam Newton. If I’m wrong and both are gone, the GM just might decide he can trade down, pick up an extra high pick and still pick up a quality defensive lineman.

In the second round, Heckert would do well to find Joe Thomas a bookend tackle on the right side of the offensive line. If Gabe Carimi, who succeeded Thomas at Wisconsin, somehow sneaks through, he'd be a perfect fit.

It all makes for a good guessing game the closer we get to the draft. That’s what make the annual lottery the fascinating event it has become.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

He's back

Back after a rest that wasn’t much of a rest.

Always in the market for something different, I ventured into the world of public address announcing during spring training out here at Goodyear Ballpark and discovered it wasn’t as easy as I expected.

Having a considerable background in talk radio – 23 years in the Greater Cleveland market – and a love for the game of baseball, my decision to step into foreign territory unveiled a new respect for the men and women who shepherd you through a baseball game via the PA.

It’s not easy at all. In fact, it requires much more discipline than a radio talk show host, whose only responsibilities are to know what he’s talking about and how to use a microphone and answer telephone calls.

The discipline of a PA announcer is vastly different. It goes far beyond merely opening up a mic and talking.

There’s paying attention to every little detail of a game in addition to making sure you get your pre-game and in-game reads in in a precise manner. Nothing is left to the imagination, especially during spring training.

It’s sell, sell, sell all the time. Make certain the fans know which products they should at least consider spending their money on.

And then there are the between-inning contests that provide entertainment. Contests such as hot-dog eating, kids racing mascots around the bases, spinning your head on a golf club and then and putting a golf ball. All designed to give the people a good laugh.

And who’s in charge of making sure the fans are aware of all this? That’s right, the PA guy.

Then there’s the real reason he’s there. To inform the fans who’s starting, who’s batting, who’s replacing a starter. And in spring training exhibition games, the lineup changes come fast, furious and without warning.

It’s not like a regular-season game where the umpire controls the situation and the PA person waits until the arbiter officially signals a new player into a game. In exhibitions, the trick is getting in all your reads, making certain the fans know who the replacements are and where they’re playing and announcing the leadoff hitter before he steps into the box.

Easy, no? No.

On more than one occasion, there wasn’t nearly enough time to squeeze everything into a two-and-a-half minute hole and it had to be managed on a piecemeal basis. After a while, it became extremely frustrating because the main job of the PA person is to inform.

It’s all about rhythm and that rhythm, with time and experience, becomes easier to manage. Having never done it before, it took nearly the entire season to nail it.

It’s like just about anything else. The more you do something, the more comfortable you feel and the better you get.

If nothing else, it gave me a greater appreciation and respect for what PA announcers do, especially in exhibition games.

I started the job apprehensive and nervous. I ended the season last week confident and hoping my work was good enough to warrant a return next season.

At least those in charge didn’t tell me not to let the door hit me in the hind flanks on the way out. I took that as a good sign.

Tomorrow, it’s back to the grind with football – what else? – in the spotlight.