Friday, August 26, 2011

An offensive do-over

If Thursday night’s exhibition game loss to the Philadelphia Eagles was the dress rehearsal for the regular season, Browns coach Pat Shurmur should demand a do-over for his offense and special teams.

He can excuse the defense because the guys on that side of the ball played very well even though the 24-14 final might not indicate that. Dick Jauron’s troops, especially the starters, played well enough to win.

It was Shurmur’s offense that flunked the dress rehearsal test. Perhaps that’s because the Eagles’ very active defense thoroughly disrupted the timing of his west coast offense to the point where quarterback Colt McCoy looked confused and tentative for the first time this preseason.

The special teams gift-wrapped the first Philadelphia touchdown when Jordan Norwood and Sheldon Brown got their signals crossed while fielding a punt and Norwood was credited with a muff. Throw in a blocked Phil Dawson field-goal attempt and cries of “Bring Back Brad Seely” could be heard. The old special teams coach is missed.

Once again, Cleveland receivers had a tough time getting open and offering themselves as targets for McCoy’s passes. And he threw downfield only twice, just missing connections with Evan Moore down the right sideline and hooking up with Brian Robiskie only to see an offensive pass interference flag wipe it out.

If the west coast is going to be successful with the current personnel, the wideouts must get separation and make themselves available quickly for their quarterback. Because the Eagles run a similar defense, they know how to defend it and disrupt it.

McCoy was the antithesis of the quarterback we saw in the first two exhibitions. The normally cock-sure Texan displayed happy feet at times as the Eagles, using no more pressure than the front four, clogged his passing lanes.

The defense, meanwhile, played extremely well against Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, dropping him at least four times and forcing him to throw before he wanted on at least seven occasions. If Jauron can dial up that kind of pressure during the regular season, that’s one less area Shurmur needs to worry about.

Whether that pressure was a reflection of how good the Browns’ front seven is or how bad the Eagles' offensive line is is strictly in the eye of the beholder. Even though it was an exhibition, I haven’t seen Vick harassed that much in a long time.

The offense looked stodgy and was reminiscent of the last two seasons when Brian Daboll authored the playbook. The quick-strike, horizontal passing game looked nothing like it did in the exhibitions against Green Bay and Detroit. Perhaps Shurmur doesn’t want to show too much before the start of the regular season.

Still to be addressed are the stupid penalties the team took – not including those assessed to Robiskie and D’Qwell Jackson, which will be dealt with later – and the lack of speed and quickness.

False start penalties are inexcusable. Illegal formation penalties are inexcusable. Neutral-zone infractions are inexcusable. They are all fixable. It’s nothing more than a matter of discipline. They must be taken care before the games count.

As hard as Shurmur and General Manager Tom Heckert Jr. have tried, this team still lacks speed and quickness. The Eagles possess both qualities. That much was evident Thursday night.

The officiating in the game was uneven, extending the notion that officials need exhibition games as much as the players to get ready for the regular-season. That was no more evident than two calls against the Browns.

I normally fall on the side of the officials, but the offensive pass interference call against Robiskie in the first half and the roughing-the-passer call against Jackson caught my attention.

Sure Robiskie pushed off slightly as he and the Eagles defender jockeyed for position on the long McCoy pass. But it was no different than what Michael Irvin got away with in Dallas all those years. Both men pushed off. So no call should have been made.

And referee Terry McAulay’s roughing call on Jackson in the second quarter was bogus at best, embarrassing at worst. Now I know the National Football League is trying to protect quarterbacks, but Jackson delivered a by-the-book clean hit on Vick. He led with his right shoulder and his helmet came nowhere near Vick’s face or head.

If McAulay had a chance to see that play on tape after the game, he no doubt would admit he made a bad call. The first clue should have been that Vick’s head never snapped back from the force of the hit.

The flag nullified a Mike Adams interception that would have enabled McCoy to start a drive in Philadelphia territory. Vick then led the Eagles to a touchdown that stretched their lead to 17-0.

Quick thoughts . . .

How did the Browns pass on Oregon linebacker Casey Matthews in last April’s college football draft? The kid’s got the DNA to play in the NFL and showed it with a strong performance as the Eagles’ middle backer. It looks as though he’s going to start the season in the middle. By the way, the Browns drafted tight end Jordan Cameron ahead of Matthews even though they were strong at that position. . . . The Browns need to cut down on the self-inflicted wounds if they want to play competitive football. Dumb football translates into losing football. . . . Nice to see the Browns use wide receiver Chris Matthews in their goal-line package. The 6-5 rookie makes a nice target down there. . . . It’ll be interesting to see how many of the wounded who missed the Eagles game will play in the exhibition finale in Chicago. Even more interesting is how many will be fit enough to play as injuries have taken a nasty toll thus far.

Welcome back

It is so good to have Jim Thome back where he belongs. Where he never should have left. Where it all began for him.

Coming back to Cleveland means he probably never again will have the chance to play in a World Series and be fitted for a championship ring. But the future Hall of Famer – and there is no question Thome will be inducted five years after he retires – will have plenty of company in that regard.

The following Hall of Famers never won a World Series: Ted Williams, Ernie Banks, Carl Yastrzemski, Harmon Killebrew, Andre Dawson, Ken Griffey Jr. (when he gets in), Billy Williams, Hack Wilson, Richie Allen, Rod Carew, Carlton Fisk, Robin Yount, Tony Gwynn Willie McCovey and Ty Cobb.

If that’s the only jewel missing from Thome’s crown, he has nothing of which to be ashamed. He has carved out his Hall of Fame career in a fashion that befits the title Hall of Famer.

From his humble pro baseball beginnings as a 13th-round selection of the Indians in the 1989 amateur draft to the day he waived a no-trade clause in his contract with the Minnesota Twins to come back home to Cleveland, Thome has distinguished himself as a pro’s pro.

He began as a rail-thin third baseman in 1991, bounced back and forth between the parent club and Class AAA for a few years and finally figured it out by 1994. Three productive years later, the Indians traded for Matt Williams and moved Thome permanently to first base.

The rest, as they say, is history. With the help of hitting coach Charlie Manuel, he became one of the most feared sluggers in baseball and put together six straight remarkable seasons: 241 home runs and 687 runs batted in.

Then he did the unconscionable as far as Indians fans were concerned. He turned his back on them after proclaiming they – not certain who they were – would have to rip the Indians uniform off his back before he’d leave.

The Indians made several generous offers, but refused to guarantee a sixth year because of Thome’s recurring back issues, and he tore the uniform off his own back, fleeing to Philadelphia, where the Phillies were more than happy to guarantee that sixth year.

Admittedly, I railed at Thome at the time. I had a radio microphone then and let him have it, calling him greedy, selfish and a liar. The Indians’ offer was more than fair as to market value back then. I maintained my disgust for the move for many years as he became a baseball vagabond.

Normally, I’m not one to forgive athletes (and owners) who turn their back on Cleveland. But I must be getting sentimental because I find myself feeling good about Thome’s return.

There’s something poetic, for lack of a better word, about a man completing a journey by coming full circle. Thome’s nice-guy persona undoubtedly has been a major factor in softening my stance.

And now that he’s back, it would behoove the Indians to not make this a symbolic move. They should hold on to Thome until that day when he decides to retire. And when that day comes, it would also behoove them to do the right thing and name him the new hitting coach.

He’d be the perfect guy for the role, giving back to the game what the game brought him. A Hall of Fame career.

As for forgiving others who abandoned Cleveland, forget it. That’ll never happen. Jim Thome is the lone exception.

Welcome back.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Detroit thoughts

It is becoming obvious that the Browns this season will be a pass-first team on offense. And after the club’s 30-28 exhibition-game loss to the Detroit Lions, it is becoming just as obvious that coach Pat Shurmur’s offensive line needs a lot of work at protecting the quarterback.

Colt McCoy, barely touched in his first three series in the opening exhibition victory over Green Bay, was thrown around like a rag doll against the Lions, who did nothing fancy on defense.

Most of the pressure came from the left side of the Detroit defensive line, once again exposing a weakness on the right side of the Cleveland offensive line. That’s an area, if not addressed, that could pose big-time problems down the line.

Yes, McCoy had three touchdown passes. But he benefited from two short fields (34 and 21 yards) on two of them, courtesy of a fumble recovery and long punt return. From a positive viewpoint, though, it was nice to see Shurmur strike quickly after getting good field position on the first two.

On the negative side, it was discomforting watching McCoy take all those hits. He’s not big enough or strong enough to withstand that kind of punishment. That has got to stop. It’s a good thing he gets the ball out of his hands as early as he does or else he would have taken a more severe pounding,

Bear in mind this was just an exhibition game. Now consider what’s it going to be like in the regular season when the tempo and intensity of the game picks up. That’s something Shurmur and General Manager Tom Heckert Jr. have to be thinking about when dealing with the health of their quarterback. . . .

With exhibition game No. 3, the so-called dress rehearsal for the regular season, coming up Thursday in Philadelphia, Shurmur is well aware his club is clearly a work in progress. As he left the field at the end of the first half of the Lions game, he told the TV sideline reporter, “There are so many more things we have to do better.”

He did not delineate. He didn’t have to. Most of them are obvious.

In no particular order: Protect the quarterback better; cut down on penalties; put more pressure on the opposing quarterback; find wide receivers who get open better than the current crop; and tackle better, especially in the secondary. . . .

If he can stay healthy, look for a strong season from middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. It is becoming apparent he is much more comfortable in the 4-3 scheme than he was in the 3-4.

For years, the main complaint with Jackson was his inability to make tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. His boosters claimed it was because of the scheme favored by Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini. Detractors believed it was because he wasn’t strong enough to play the position.

There was nothing wrong with his instincts for the game. It was his inability to make plays that resulted in negative yardage. His tackle totals were high, but were offset by the lack of big plays. He’s already made several plays behind the line of scrimmage thus far.

Quick observations:

Some of the problems encountered in the Detroit game will be addressed Thursday in Philly with the expected return of outside linebackers Chris Gocong and Scott Fujita, safety T. J. Ward, left guard Eric Steinbach, tight end Ben Watson and running backs Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty, who were dinged up and sat out against the Lions. Wide receiver Mo Massaquoi is still questionable. . . . Liked the quick-twitch moves of return man Jordan Norwood. Would like to see more of him as a receiver. . . . Richmond McGee’s second game as the punter produced far more inconsistent results than his debut. The rookie needs to step it up. . . . The Browns should be scouring the waiver wire for at least one veteran wide receiver – two would be better – because McCoy needs all the help he can get on the outside if the west coast scheme is to be successful. . . . What’s wrong with rookie fullback Owen Marecic? Two dropped passes in two games. Had much better hands at Stanford. He needs to settle down. . . . Considering Phil Dawson’s inability to kick the ball deep into the end zone on a consistent basis on kickoffs, the Browns should seriously consider keeping Jeff Wolfert around as a kickoff specialist. Don’t underestimate the importance of such a specialist. . . . Other than Armond Smith’s 81-yard touchdown run early in the second half, no one below the first team stood out. Smith then subtracted those points by losing a pair of fumbles. . . . The Browns can do a lot better than Jarrett Brown as their third quarterback. He’s going to need a lot more than a strong throwing arm to stick around. . . . If another concussion sidelines tight end Evan Moore, label him fragile and injury-prone. He’s a great target in the red zone, but does not help when on the sidelines.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Green Bay perspective

It’s so easy to feel good about the way the Browns played a football game Saturday night against the Green Bay Packers. At this point, Browns fans will latch onto just about anything positive. And that’s understandable.

But there is still a long way to go as Pat Shurmur attempts to change the culture of his team. And he knows that.

That’s why the 27-17 victory over the Super Bowl champion Packers should be put in perspective. If anything, it showed that the stodgy offense Cleveland fans have been used to watching the last several seasons is gone. And the 3-4 scheme that failed to do what it was supposed to do the last several seasons is gone.

What a welcome change.

If the victory over the Packers is any indication, the Cleveland offense will be as wide open this season as a Texas prairie and the defense finally – finally!! – will show up with an attitude on Sundays.

Some more specific observations . . .

There is no question the Browns have uncovered a quarterback who has all the attributes of a strong leader. Colt McCoy appears to have the right intangibles.
Couple an overwhelming desire to succeed with absolutely no fear of failure and you have a potential winning combination.

He’s not big by National Football League standards. He doesn’t have the arm strength fans would love to see. And yet, he is a playmaker. He helps elevate the performance of his teammates. He is poised in the pocket. And he has wonderful touch on his passes.

He also has a swagger reminiscent of another Cleveland quarterback of about 30 years ago. Brian Sipe was not big, had a marginal throwing arm and was not the most mobile quarterback. All he did was win – or always give his team the chance to win – for several seasons. McCoy possesses some of Sipe’s characteristics. . . .

What in the world were the Browns thinking when they passed up the opportunity to trade for wide receiver Lee Evans when the Buffalo Bills put him on the market?

All the Bills wanted was a fourth-round draft choice. That’s not too much to give up for a man who can stretch a field with his speed and would clearly have been the Browns’ No. 1 receiver once he put on a uniform. That’s how average the Cleveland receiving corps is. He would have been a more vital contributor to the Browns than any future fourth-round pick.

Two other reasons it would have made sense to go after Evans. First of all, he’s a Cleveland guy. Graduated from Bedford High School. But what hurts most is that he wound up with Baltimore Ravens. Now we’ll get to see him twice a season. Wake up Tom Heckert Jr. and do your homework. You blew this one. . . .

It looks as though Peyton Hills won’t have to carry the brunt of the running attack this season. The slashing running style of Brandon Jackson gives the Browns a solid backup to Hillis. He is hard to bring down and always seems to be leaning forward. No more downgrading at the position when the big guy needs a breather. . . .

Based on early returns, the Browns won’t have any problems with the kicking game this season. Richmond McGee’s punting against the Packers was surprisingly strong, averaging nearly 50 yards a kick. Now let’s see if consistency is in his repertoire.

And let’s see how the Browns handle placekicker Jeff Wolfert. The youngster showed a powerful leg, nailing field goals of 46 and 44 yards against the Packers. Both kicks cleared the crossbar with room to spare. And his kickoffs consistently found the end zone.

It’s not unusual for teams to keep two kickers on the roster. And with Phil Dawson winding down his career, it might behoove the Browns to consider keeping Wolfert for the future. . . .

The Browns’ defensive line is young – maybe a little too young – and looks as though it will experience considerable growing pains as it switches to the 4-3 look. It’s still way too early, of course, but Ahtyba Rubin seemed to struggle in his three series against the Green Bay offense and rookies Jabaal Sheard and Phil Taylor looked lost. Only Jayme Mitchell, who registered one of the five sacks of the evening, looked comfortable. . . .

It was nice to see Brian Robiskie get open for the first pass reception of the evening. The lanky wide receiver had all sorts of problems getting off the line of scrimmage last season, but seems to have solved that problem.

If he is to be successful in the NFL, he has to make himself available to his quarterback. If he can do that with any degree of consistency, he very well might turn out to the wideout the Browns thought they drafted a few years ago. . . .

It didn’t take tight end Ben Watson long to get into mid-season form. It looks as though he and McCoy are cultivating a nice relationship that should translate into a better season than 2010. Watson and fellow tight end Evan Moore have just about perfected the seam route down the middle with which McCoy has found plenty of success. . . .

One down note . . . what in the world happened before the first play of the game? As the Packers lined up for the first play from scrimmage following the opening kickoff, the Browns called a timeout.

First of all, timeouts are precious. They are to be used only in extreme situations and should be saved until the end of halves. Use them only in critical situations.

In this case, the Browns opened up the game on defense with 12 men on the field. Someone did not get the message he was not starting. Bad communication. Inexcusable. Embarrassing.

Even so, a timeout should not have been called at that juncture. Run the play, take the penalty and move on. It’s an exhibition game.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Chill time

This is the time of the professional football season to chill. Really, truly chill. Grain of salt time.

The Browns open the exhibition season Saturday night against the Green Bay Packers in front of the home fans and you can bet many of those fans will jump to conclusions based on what they observe.

What they’ll see is a team in its infancy in just about every aspect. Yet, they will prejudge the outcome as if it were the middle of the season. They’ll take good performances and extrapolate them into the meaningful part of the season.

Bad performances will be treated as though they would become commonplace. Exaggeration would be rampantly on the loose. In some areas, out of control.

Nothing could be further from the actual meaning of Pat Shurmur’s debut as a head coach in the National Football League. The Packers game will be nothing more than an exercise in curiosity. In other words, trial and error.

If the Browns somehow win and look good doing so, there is a segment of Browns Nation that will automatically assume the light at the end of the tunnel has been sighted. That’s it. The bad ol’ days are finally in the rear-view mirror.

And should the Browns more predictably look like a team just learning how to play Shurmur style football on offense and Dick Jauron style football on defense, it would be easy to say,” Same old, same old.”

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. This team is in the baby-step phase of its resurrection. It will take more than four exhibition games to progress beyond that stage. A lot more.

The best way to judge the Browns this season will be on a game-to-game basis. Growth does not come suddenly. It comes slowly, gradually. Sometimes, it comes in fits and starts. Other times, backward steps will be taken.

Fans, especially those ardent enough to blow things out of proportion in their desire to see the club do well, have to know by now that the climb will not be easy, particularly in the tough AFC North.

What they should look for is a steady climb, one not readily noticeable on the surface. Cutting down on mistakes on a weekly basis, for example. How many times in the last seven seasons did we hear Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini lament costly mistakes – almost weekly – and suggest they had to “go back to the drawing board” to eliminate the miscues? Too many.

That’s bad coaching. When the message is delivered repeatedly and still doesn’t get through, that’s bad coaching.

Watch the Browns as the season unwinds and look for mistakes. Then watch and see if they are corrected and never occur again. If they continue to hamper the club’s progress, that’s when it will be same old, same old.

Watch games with a jaundiced eye as the Browns begin their journey under Shurmur. That way, you’ll get a much more realistic view. And then chill because things can’t get much worse than the last two seasons.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Injuries, Inc.

One of the X factors stemming from the prolonged owners’ lockout was how well the players would hold up despite not really playing football.

The jury is not completely in on this one, but early indications are that “not very well” might be the definitive answer.

Players are falling like flies all around National Football League training camps. From pulled muscles to Achilles’ tendon injuries, from bone bruises to total fractures, it looks as though injuries will play a big part in how well a team performs this season.

That has been the case down through the years as teams with the fewest injuries usually have a better shot at appearing in the postseason. This season, however, will be different.

Without the benefit of Organized Team Activities (OTA) and minicamps, all NFL teams reported cold to training camps this season. The last meaningful football they played was last winter.

Never mind the so-called organized get-togethers players on several teams had while the owners and players thrashed out their labor differences. Camp Colt for the Browns, for example, might have been good for camaraderie. But it was not nearly the same as practicing with coaches.

Absent was the kind of discipline required to bring out the players’ best attributes and correct their worst. It’s difficult to accomplish anything when dealing with those on the same peer level.

Communications between the clubs and players were cut off by the lockout. Players need guidance. That’s how they’re taught to function. None came. That aspect of their professional life was chopped off.

In the past when players reported to training camp, everyone was in shape. Everyone knew what needed to be done. That’s not going to happen this season except, perhaps, for those teams that made the fewest personnel moves.

The lockout will hurt the Browns more than most teams this season. They picked the wrong year to change the offense and defense. That will come back to bite them in the hind flanks.

Fans are excited about the new direction the team has chosen to travel. And they should be after two miserable seasons of Eric Mangini football.

It’s exciting to know the offense will be more wide open than button down. Pat Shurmur’s offense promises to be of the pass-first variety with the running game complementing it.

It’ll also be more exciting watching the Browns operate out of the 4-3 look on defense after all those seasons of defensive futility with the 3-4 scheme. Putting constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks should be something fans will happily get used to seeing on a weekly basis.

But because the Browns are just learning how to operate with different philosophies on both sides of the ball, it’s unreasonable to expect instant success. That’s just going to happen.

Therefore, it would be just as unreasonable to expect Shurmur to be a rousing success right out of the box. That’s not going to happen, either.

However, it is reasonable to expect the growth process to be steady, if not spectacular. The ultimate litmus test will be finding out whether the team that finished the 2011 season is better than the one that started it.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

More Moore please

Maybe it’ll take a new coach for the Browns to realize. An offensive coach who understands how valuable certain players are when used properly.

Perhaps it takes a coach like Pat Shurmur to understand just how valuable Evan Moore can be to his team’s offense this season.

Moore is listed officially as a tight end. Maybe that’s because he’s 6-6 and 247 pounds. In the measurables-conscious world of the National Football League, figures like that scream tight end.

He’s not.

He’s just a big wide receiver who happens to be tall and rangy. He was a wideout at Stanford. Had decent speed for a big man. Was very athletic. Caught just about everything thrown his way.

But wide receivers are not supposed to be 6-6, 247. However, there are exceptions.

Joe Jurevicius, for example, was a 6-5, 230-pound wide receiver in the NFL for a decade. Gave the Browns a couple of nice seasons. So by adding 17 pounds, does that make him a tight end? Of course not.

In his first two seasons (actually 17 games in a season and a half) with the Browns, Moore has been misused. He is not a good blocker. At least as a tight end he’s not a good blocker. His strengths are getting open and catching the football.

In those 17 games, he has caught 28 passes, but averaged a shade more than 17 yards a grab. The Browns are hurting big time for wide receivers. In Moore, they have a good one right in their midst. And until now, they didn’t know it.

That’s where Shurmur comes in. Always seeking new ways to move the football, the new coach has to see how valuable Moore can be to his west coast scheme. Large targets like him are a premium to that offense.

Running Moore across the middle from the slot would pose huge problems for opposing defenses. Whether the primary target or used for a clear-out throw to a trailing receiver, he can make a difference. His talent quotient has been virtually untapped.

Until now, all we’ve seen from Moore are spectacular catches along the sidelines or deep down the middle. In order to maximize his talents, that has to change. He needs to be involved in all aspects of the offense.

Right now, the only down side to Moore is his ability to remain healthy. His injury history began at Stanford with hip, foot and knee problems. He had a sports hernia problem late last season that short-circuited 2010.

Perhaps Moore’s body is not used to the grind of playing on a consistent basis. Shurmur won’t know that until – and unless – he makes Moore part of the wide receiver rotation.

But if his body can take the sustained punishment, there’s no reason to believe Moore can’t become a valuable member of the Cleveland offense.

All it takes is for Shurmur to watch the tapes of practice at training camp and realize he has a receiving weapon in Moore that needs to be utilized and maximized.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Random thoughts on the Browns

Early thoughts from the desert as the Browns prepare for the 2011 season . . .

Do not diminish the importance of losing punter Reggie Hodges for the season. One of the most important elements of football is field position. And to win that battle, a head coach must have a good punter.

Ask any coach what battles he wants to win during a game and most of them will point first to two: Field position and time of possession. Teams that win those elements invariably wind up winning more games than they lose. And losing a good punter like Hodges, who is essential to field position, will hurt the Browns.

Even though it will be improved on defense this season with the switch to the 4-3, the Browns’ defense will be challenged much more often than last season as less-than-average punting will give them shorter fields with which to work.

Unless the Browns get lucky and uncover a gem, get used to watching opposing drives start a lot closer to the Cleveland goal line than last season. . . .

It appears as though coach Pat Shurmur and General Manager Tom Heckert Jr. are more than satisfied with their corps of receivers. Despite the fact none of the incumbents’ career numbers come close to “wow” status, Shurmur and Heckert’s sanguine approach is somewhat puzzling.

Perhaps they see something most of us don’t see. Maybe their talents are much better suited for the west coast scheme Shurmur has brought from St. Louis. It’s possible the receiving talents of Mo Massaquoi, Brian Robiskie and Joshua Cribbs have been misused the last two seasons.

Then again, when you stop and consider Shurmur had mediocre receiving talent with which to work when he schemed the Rams’ offense last season, it makes sense that he sees similarities in Cleveland and draws those conclusions.

And now with rookie Greg Little added to the mix, the new coach sees the receiving glass as half full and then some. What he will soon discover is that Cribbs is not a good receiver – he’s a much better runner – and Robiskie has trouble getting open.

And no one knows yet what Little will contribute. He didn’t play at all last season and there’s no telling how long it will take for him to (a) shake off the rust; (b) learn the nuances of the wide receiver position in the National Football League; and (c) learn to read defenses. . . .

If first impressions mean anything, the Browns shouldn’t have any problem stopping the run this season.

With top draft choice Phil Taylor now under contract and on the field, he and fellow defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin take up a massive amount of space in the middle. Early indications are they will be difficult to move.

But since this is training camp and Taylor and Rubin are facing teammates, skeptics such as I prefer to wait and see what unfolds when players across from them are not teammates. Litmus tests such as those are much better gauges to judge the talents of players. . . .

It appears as though Shurmur is going to give second-year man Shaun Lauvao every opportunity to win the job as the starting right guard. If successful, that’ll give Heckert four starters from the 2010 draft class.

And should Montario Hardesty stun just about everyone and stay healthy long enough to become a significant complement to Peyton Hillis at running back, make that five starters. . . .

Usama Young has been plugged in as Abram Elam’s successor at free safety. As the exhibition season unfolds, however, expect a battle between Young and Mike Adams to see who opens up the regular season against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 11.

Adams is the more versatile of the two since he can play all four secondary positions. He’s also more experienced and seems to have the knack of making big plays. It’s time he’s given the opportunity to become a full-time player. . . .

Haven’t heard much about the linebacker situation, but that’s somewhat understandable since it very well could be the strongest position on the defensive side of the ball.

Chris Gocong, Scott Fujita and D’Qwell Jackson figure to see their tackle totals rise with the new scheme. Especially Jackson’s if he can stay healthy. Right now, though, that’s a big if considering his injury history. When healthy, he’s a tackling machine. He racked up 154 tackles in 2008 before torn pectoral muscles caused him to miss most of the last two seasons.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Shades of Wayne Garland

Here we are 106 games into the baseball season and the Indians are not an afterthought to Cleveland sports fans.

The Browns have started training camp with a virtually new coaching staff and new hope. And yet, here are the Indians on the lips of the fans.

That, in and of itself, is quite an upset.

Not since 2007, when they came within one victory of a World Series appearance, have the Indians been so relevant this deep into the season.

Talking Tribe in August is as common as a snowstorm in the middle of the month. The wait-until-next-year syndrome usually kicks in somewhere in late May or early June.

Not this season.

This team, just when you think it’s cooked and ready for the proverbial fork, lurches back to life. Just when you think the tank is approaching empty, this team plumbs for and discovers more fuel.

Fifty-six games left in the season and only two games separate the Indians from first place. No one in his right mind would have guessed that scenario at the beginning of the season.

That despite season-wrecking injuries to two of their best players, Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo. Neither has been a major contributor to the cause.

And yet, the skeptics lurked. Maybe that’s because the Indians are just 24-37 since their 30-15 start. Maybe that’s because the early-season magic, when hitting safely with runners in scoring position was an everyday occurrence, has disappeared.

So when the trading deadline approached, General Manager Chris Antonetti needed to decide whether he was a seller or a buyer. As it turned out, he was a gambler.

In a move that would make him the envy of most gamblers, Antonetti mortgaged the future by swapping his top two minor-league pitchers for the uncertainty of the pitching enigma known as Ubaldo Jimenez.

One thing the Indians get in Jimenez is reliability. He has averaged 33 starts for the last four seasons. The big question is how far that reliability stretches.

In his five seasons with the Colorado Rockies, Jimenez has been the model of inconsistency. And yet, Antonetti allowed himself to fall in love with Jimenez’s amazing 15-1 start last season.

Therein lies the X-factor in this deal. Is the newest Indian that 15-1 guy or the 10-16 pitcher he has been since? Clearly, Antonetti believes Jimenez is the former.

Now factor in that Jimenez won’t have the luxury of facing opposing pitchers anymore and the scare factor enters the picture.

All of this brings to mind the time when the Indians fell head over heels for a Baltimore Orioles pitcher who had a fantastic season in 1976. As it turned out, it was a career season for Wayne Garland, who started the campaign in the Orioles’ bullpen, eventually worked his way into the rotation and finished with a 20-7 record.

Good enough for the Indians, who signed Garland as a free agent to a 10-year contract worth $2.3 million, a lot of money in those days. He came nowhere near that 20-7 in his five years in Cleveland. He won 28 games and lost 48 in those miserable seasons.

So is Jimenez the modern-day Wayne Garland? Or will Antonetti’s gamble pay off and help pave the way back to the postseason?

That kind of question is rare in Cleveland at this time of the year. And that’s not a bad thing.