Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Pro Bore

Confession time.

I watched about half of Sunday’s Pro Bowl game. I’m not certain why. It was two quarters more than I’ve watched in more years than I care to remember.

Perhaps it was because there was nothing else on at the time that drew my interest. Then again, maybe I needed a football fix.

That the poobahs at National Football League headquarters have decided to play the game the week prior to the Super Bowl no doubt contributed to the high number of viewers.

Well, maybe not high, but the 12.5 million households that had the game on outdrew the Major League All-Star Game, which pulled in 11 million last summer. That, in and of itself, is quite an accomplishment since the two Pro Bowl teams play defense as though they're learning to play it for the first time.

The baseball All-Star Game, on the other hand, is played on a much higher competitive plane. And still it can beat the Pro Bowl for TV ratings.

With ratings like that, you can be certain the NFL will never go back to holding the Pro Bowl game the week following the Super Bowl. Even with elected players from the two Super Bowl teams absent, the ratings seem to justify the switch.

As for the game itself, is it any wonder the two teams Sunday rang up a record 100 points? It was more like a flag football game the way the two sides sorta kinda played.

For more than three quarters, linemen on pass plays slow-danced with each other. At the snap, offensive linemen dropped back and engaged their defensive counterparts in a touchy-feely way. The only thing missing was an orchestra playing a waltz.

On occasion the crowd realized the half-hearted effort by the two teams and began to boo.

It was much easier playing in the trenches than beyond the line of scrimmage. It looked more like a training camp 7-on-7 drill most of the afternoon with the running backs and wide receivers going against the linebackers and secondary.

Brandon Marshall scored four touchdowns for the AFC and Larry Fitzgerald found the end zone three times for the NFC. Under ordinary circumstances, a couple of sensational feats. Under these circumstances, ho hum.

Watching Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas go 1-2-3 with Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen on play after play had me reaching for the No-Doz. During the regular season, Allen would have given Thomas fits.

The teams generated 1,142 yards, 943 through the air, and 52 first downs. The running game was nothing more than window dressing. Is it any wonder the longest run in Pro Bowl history is only 70 yards by the Browns’ Jim Brown in 1962?

With the exception of the final two NFC series, when the AFC actually summoned up a real, honest-to-goodness pass rush on Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, the quarterbacks had no problem getting the ball out as the men in the trenches played in slow motion.

All the skill players on offense and the back seven on defense earned their money on this afternoon. And even then, the effort wasn’t there totally as rivals smiled and patted each other on the butt after big plays. So much for the competitive nature of the game.

Sure it’s nice to watch an offensive explosion. But not one as carefully orchestrated as this one.

Will I watch next year? Only if there’s nothing else on.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Bad move

First off, a frank admission.

I was hoping the Browns would hire Mike Sherman to be their next offensive coordinator. Why? Because I think he has a better offensive mind that anyone else out there who was jobless.

The Browns reportedly had considered Sherman and Brad Childress for the job. It baffles me why they chose to go with Childress. His credentials pale in comparison to those of Sherman, who wound up succeeding Brian Daboll in Miami.

Then I thought it had to be the Bob LaMonte connection. LaMonte, whose Cleveland presence grows with every front-office hire, was Childress’ agent and got the job because Sherman was not in the LaMonte stable. I figured wrong. He is.

What a pipeline LaMonte has with the Browns. From Mike Holmgren to Tom Heckert Jr. to Pat Shurmur and now Childress, the agent might as well set up a satellite office at 76 Lou Groza Blvd.

So why did the wrong guy wind up in Cleveland? We’ll never know the real answer to that one, but here’s a guess. Sherman wanted total control of the offense, including calling plays, and Shurmur said no.

Childress, who called plays just one season in his National Football League coaching career, was more than willing to cede play calling to the head coach. After being out of the NFL last season, he just wanted to get back into the coaching ranks anyway he could.

Sherman was a highly successful head coach in Green Bay after succeeding Holmgren, who moved to Seattle. As the head coach and play caller, the Packers racked up a 53-27 record in his first five seasons, winning three straight NFC North championships.

Due in large part to significant early-season injuries to Ahman Green, Javon Walker and Bubba Franks, the Packers slipped to 4-12 in 2005 and gave the front office a reason to pink slip Sherman.

Childress does not own nearly as impressive a resume. He was given a large share of the credit when he was offensive coordinator in Philadelphia, but Andy Reid called all the plays for the Eagles.

After Minnesota tapped him to succeed Mike Tice in 2006, the Vikings struggled under Childress for a couple of seasons before winning back-to-back NFC North titles. He called plays his first year in Minnesota, when the Vikes were 6-10.

Darrel Bevel took over as offensive coordinator upon the arrival of Brett Favre in Minnesota. The two had worked closely while in Green Bay. Childress, meanwhile, busied himself as the head coach and de facto general manager. He was fired late in the 2010 season.

If Shurmur continues to call the plays for the Browns, we can look forward to pretty much what we saw this past season. What could Childress, who was Shurmur’s boss in Philadelphia, do to enliven a moribund offensive philosophy? He doesn’t have a young Donovan McNabb, as he did in Philadelphia, or a revitalized Favre, as he had in Minnesota. Unless Holmgren, Heckert and Shurmur decide Colt McCoy is not the guy for this offense, Childress is stuck with mediocre talent.

Would Sherman have been able to get more out of this talent? Maybe. Maybe not. The only certainty is that we’ll never know.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Can't reassign me

It's true. It's true. Randy Lerner is "a pathetic figure and the most irrelevant billionaire in the world."

There. I said it. And I mean it.

Tony Grossi got it right. He tweeted those quoted thoughts recently and it cost him his job as the Plain Dealer's chief Browns beat reporter. He hasn't been fired by the paper and probably won't be because he's too good a reporter to cut loose.

Guess here is Tony will move on and wind up somewhere in the Internet world. Online is the place where more and more respected journalists are landing these days as the world of print journalism continues to take a pounding.

It may have cost Tony his beloved beat, but repeating it here -- and meaning it -- won't cost me.

Nothing personal, Randy, but Tony nailed this one perfectly if a little crudely for a beat reporter. This has nothing do with what I think of you personally since we've never met and therefore I have no opinion on that.

It has everything to do with what I think of you professionally, as owner of the Browns. And I think -- without really knowing -- that's what Tony was thinking when he hit the wrong button on what has turned out to be an ill-advised tweet.

As the owner of the Cleveland Browns for the last decade, your record has been worse than pathetic if that's possible. It has been embarrassing to the city of Cleveland and its legion of loyal professional football fans. And you should be ashamed for the product that you, in this buck stops here world of ours, have produced.

You continually surround yourself with the wrong people. You listen to the wrong people among your ownership constituency. After nearly a decade of ownership, I am thisclose to believing you and Murphy's Law have a lot in common when it comes to running the Browns.

And while I don't believe you had anything to do with Tony's reassignment, you gave him enough fodder with your pathetic guidance of the team to cause him to overreact emotionally. It appeared to be an "enough already" moment that triggered that tweet.

As for your monetary status and its irrelevancy, that statement stands on its own merit. You are a billionaire and you are irrelevant. Judging from your shyness with the media, what's wrong with being called irrelevant? It's almost as though you enjoy being in the background. That's where a lot of irrelevant people choose to reside.

No doubt they are celebrating Tony's status change in Baltimore, where the Ravens for years have tried unsuccessfully to override Tony's influence in keeping Art Modell out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His powerful lobbying against such a move has been a decisive factor in keeping Modell where he belongs -- on the outside looking in.

With Tony now ostensibly out of the picture and no one standing in the way, count on the Ravens to once again ramp up their efforts to elevate Modell to HOF status. Wouldn't be surprised if Randy Lerner lends support somewhere along the way among his ownership brethren.

Too bad. Unless some unknown HOF voter shares Tony's passion for keeping Modell where he belongs and picks up Tony's baton and runs with it, looks as though the The Great Traitor will finally get his wish. From this standpoint, he then would become the Most Irrelevant Man in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Hopefully, that will never happen.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A budding star for the Cavaliers

Saw the Cavaliers knock off the Phoenix Suns the other night. First time this season and most likely the last, too, unless the Suns’ visit to Cleveland in late March is televised back to Arizona.

Some observations . . .

Kyrie Irving is a player. The kid plays the game like someone a whole lot older than his 19 years. And he’s just scratching the surface.

There are some players who have a great feel for the game. Then there are those who scratch their way along and flirt with the nuances of the game. Irving, who averages 16.6 points, 5.2 assists and 3.4 rebounds and is 88% from the line, is definitely the former.

He handles himself like a seasoned pro when directing the attack. He is the perfect floor cop for coach Byron Scott, who apparently is comfortable with letting him run the show.

He’s not a wizard with the ball . . . yet. But he soon will be. With his marvelous court vision, he sees plays being develop before they’re made, while others struggle just to see them developing. It’s a sixth sense some athletes are blessed with.

His innate ability to thread passes through a maze of defenders in bullet-like fashion for easy buckets makes you blink at times. How does he do it? you ask yourself. He makes it look so easy.

The way Irving plays – and this is based solely on one game and snippets from other Cleveland games on ESPN and TNT – gives rise to the notion that the NBA game has already slowed down for him. It appears as though he sees the game in slow motion.

And he has a flair for the spectacular. In the second quarter of the Phoenix victory, he was about 15 feet from the basket on the left wing, then used a left-to-right cross-over dribble and 360-dgree spin move from right to left to get to the bucket, where he scooped a shot under the outstretched arms of Suns center Marcin Gortat for the easy score. It was a move you can’t teach. It was all instinct.

Admittedly, I was not in favor of the Cavaliers drafting the Duke freshman, who won’t turn 20 until late March. He had played only 11 college games because of a toe injury and while he played well in those games, it was a huge risk to make him the No. 1 overall selection.

I wanted the Cavs to go after power forward Derrick Williams, having been familiar with his game after watching him play for the University of Arizona. Now I understand why Cavs General Manager Chris Grant wanted Irving.

Strong point guards do not grow on NBA trees. Rarely does someone who plays that position come into the league and have an immediate impact. And even though he’s played in just 11 games, there is a considerable buzz around league circles regarding his performance.

Another unsung part of his game is his willingness to play hard and smart on defense. Young players always want to score, driving coaches nuts. Irving has shown he delights at making plays at both ends of the floor.

If he stays healthy, the Cavaliers will do all right this fractured season and the club will have its second-ever rookie of the year, the first since He Who Shall Not Be Mentioned won it in the 2003-04 season.

Williams, a much more polished college player than Irving, is coming off the bench for the Minnesota Timberwolves, averaging 8.7 points and 4.6 rebounds, averaging 21 minutes in 10 games.

Other observations . . .

Anderson Varejao is a beast on the offensive boards, but should never be allowed to take a shot outside 10 feet. But you’ve got to love the big guy from Brazil, whose motor never stops, because he is one huge pain in the rear to opponents.

He never stops. His hyperactive style of play makes him difficult to defend. And his marvelous ability to block out underneath the opponent’s basket and poach for rebounds has played a large factor in Cleveland’s success this season. . . .

Tristan Thompson, taken by the Cavs with the fourth overall draft pick, has a lot of rough edges, most notably at the foul line, where he’s a 40% shooter. However, the power forward seems at home around the basket and should provide Scott with some strong rebounding as he becomes more comfortable with the NBA game. . . .

Another admission: I liked Kansas’ Markieff Morris more than Thompson as a power forward. The 6-10, 245-pounder had a stronger all-around game than the leaner Thompson and was more NBA ready. Clearly in the nature of a second guess, I would have taken Morris, who has averaged 9.2 points and 6.2 rebounds as game for the Suns, averaging 20 minutes a game. And he’s 80% from the free-throw line. . . .

The Cavs have a good shot at finishing a lot more respectably than last season. They’ll compete with and knock off more than a few teams that wander in the middle and lower tiers of the NBA, and should have no trouble racking up more than the 19 victories they compiled last season. It’s the big boys who will give them trouble.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Tuesday leftovers

So Seneca Wallace wants a shot at winning the job as the Browns’ starting quarterback next season.

Two words: Fat chance.

Wallace, who filled in admirably (but not successfully) for Colt McCoy in the final three games of the season, said he intends to lobby for the job. The seven-year veteran sounded serious, but he’s smart enough to know that’s not going to happen.

He’s a career backup quarterback in the National Football League who apparently does not know his place. Perhaps it’s the ease with which he ran the Cleveland offense in those three games that emboldens him to step up and think he can be an effective starter.

No question the Browns’ offense looked better with Wallace than McCoy under center. Not good, mind you. Better. There seemed to be less confusion and plays were executed more crisply.

But the (generously listed) 5-11 Wallace completed less than half his passes (53 of 105) for just 550 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions and generated a paltry 33 points in those three outings. He is clearly not the answer at quarterback for the Browns.

Once Mike Holmgren, Tom Heckert Jr. or Pat Shurmur, or a combination of all three, sit Wallace down, they will snap him back to reality. Either that or the Browns will seek another backup for whomever does win the starting job.

* * *
Now that the reality of a 4-12 season has set in, Shurmur has resorted to spin mode. “We’ve got to win games and I’m obviously not at peace with that,” the coach said. “Now we’ll get to the business of doing what we have to do to get our team as right as we can make it for next season.”

Not certain exactly what all that means unless he was saying in a roundabout way that he didn’t like the losing and would try something different next season in order to correct whatever went wrong this season.

He said he would relinquish his duties as offensive coordinator and play-caller if he can find the “right guy.” That, of course, leaves the door slightly ajar because we won’t know if anyone fits his description of the right guy.

The two NFL head coaches recently fired, Raheem Morris in Tampa and Steve Spagnuolo in St. Louis, are defensive coaches. Retreads Brad Childress and Mike Sherman are available. Shurmur declined on Childress last year. Sherman, who coached under Holmgren in Green Bay and Seattle, was fired as Texas A&M head coach a month ago.

Let’s see how serious Shurmur is when it comes to ceding play-calling authority to someone else. It might not be as easy as one thinks. Once a play caller, always a play caller.

* * *
Sheldon Brown doesn’t see the savior of the Browns arriving anytime soon. No sir, he’s not waiting. “I’m definitely not and if you are, you’re crazy,” said the cornerback after the season finale against Pittsburgh. “This game is too hard. There’s too big a jump (for someone) to come from college and think he’s going to come in (and make a difference right away). Who does it?’’

But Brown believes the club is close to winning. “We’re very close,” he said. “It’s just one or two plays each game. You just have to find the playmakers and they have to understand the sense of urgency and make the play.”

Talk like that will land Brown a coaching job somewhere when he decides to retire. He sounds just like many head coaches in the NFL. How many times have we heard “we were just one big play away from winning that game” or “we make one or two more plays and we win”? Right out of the coaching manual.

* * *
Brown is right about one thing, though. Half of the Browns’ losses were by seven or less points, including both Pittsburgh setbacks. But he neglects to flip that coin over and discover that three of the team’s four victories were by four points or less and the fourth was by eight points.

All it proves is the Browns, mainly because of the defense, were able to keep a preponderance of games close. At the same time, they proved they were incapable of winning most those games.

* * *
Stream of thought: Congratulations to D’Qwell Jackson for playing all 16 games for the second time in his career. The linebacker, as usual, led the team in total tackles with 158. . . . Joshua Cribbs saved his best game of the year as a wide receiver for the finale, catching seven passes, several of the spectacular variety, for 91 yards. . . . Mo Massaquoi is thisclose to being considered a draft bust. Saddled by a concussion early in the season, the third-year wideout caught just 31 passes for 384 yards in the 14 games he played. His career totals are 101 catches for 1,491 yards and seven touchdowns. . . . Fellow wide receiver Greg Little led the club in receptions with 61 for only 709 yards. The rookie, however, scored just two touchdowns. . . . Middle-round pick Owen Marecic was a colossal flop and a virtual non-factor in his first season, gaining only eight yards on four carries and catching five passes for 31 yards. Made many Browns fans yearn for Lawrence Vickers. . . . Rookie defensive end Jabaal Sheard came on strong after a slow start and wound up leading the team in sacks with 8½. . . . The team surprisingly finished with a turnover ratio of +1. Their 19 giveaways were second-fewest in the AFC and fourth-fewest in the league. . . . They wound up 28th in the league in rushing, 24th in passing and 29th in total yards. Defensively, they ranked 30th against the run, second vs. the pass, 10th overall in yards allowed and third in red zone defense. . . . The offense scored 20 touchdowns, the lowest total since the 2000 team racked up 17. . . . Quote of possibly the season from Cribbs: “We almost win most of the time.”

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A positive incompletion

The ball hung in the winter air at Cleveland Browns Stadium early Sunday evening as the snow swirled about it and the clock wound down to triple zeroes. With its descent hung the fortunes of the Browns.

If a Cleveland receiver in the end zone catches the Hail Mary pass by Seneca Wallace, the Browns miraculously defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers but lose several spots in the college football draft next April. If the pass falls harmlessly to the ground, the Browns finish the season 4-12 but draft fourth.

Fortunately, the ball fell incomplete. Why fortunately? Isn’t beating the Steelers important anymore? Not on this day it wasn’t. All the loss meant was the Browns finished the season oh for the AFC North. It meant nothing more.

The 13-9 setback was just another heaping helping of futility as the club concluded yet another extremely forgettable season.

To wit: The 2011 Browns compiled 218 points in 16 games, one more point than the 1999 expansion Browns. The current Browns scored seven touchdowns at home in eight games. That’s not a misprint. Seven visits to the end zone in 32 quarters. The expansionists doubled that total at CBS.

That’s how much progress has been made in the last 13 seasons. It’s almost as though the Browns are right back where they started when the National Football League allowed the club’s rebirth.

But now that they are back in the top four come draft day, the significance of that incompletion will become clear as the Browns get a crack at three of the top 36 players in what is expected to be a talent-rich class. Unless, of course, Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert Jr. have another massive brain cramp and trade down.

When Holmgren and Heckert enter their bunker on draft day and make command decisions concerning the direction of the club, the offensive side of the ball should be considered priorities 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. This team’s offense passed awful around mid-season.

And if the two top men don’t recognize that and draft accordingly, Browns fans will be in for a whole lot more very bad football and the president and general manager lose whatever credibility they’ve been able to build.

The Browns finished 4-12 this season because they deserved to finish 4-12. This is a team devoid of talent in too many vital areas. It is slow, does not play smart and lacks playmakers on just about every level.

Except for a defense that did not embarrass itself, the Browns bottom-fed most of the season as coach Pat Shurmur failed spectacularly to live up to expectations. Maybe it was because he was his own offensive coordinator.

Shurmur’s version of the west coast offense was not of this planet. Its stuttering and sputtering belied the very foundation on which it has been successful elsewhere. The late Bill Walsh would have blanched in astonishment if told this was the offense he perfected. It would have been totally unrecognizable.

That’s why it is imperative Holmgren and Heckert do not screw up the draft this time. If Shurmur insists this will be the road traveled on offense next season, then it practically mandates rounding up the talent that will help to make it successful. Right now, that talent is AWOL. It certainly is not wearing the Seal Brown and Orange.

Even though he looked overmatched most of the season, Shurmur deserves one more crack at this head-coaching gig. At the same time, he needs to stop trying to put the square peg in the round hole.

He should start by looking for a coordinator who fits his offensive philosophy. Doubling up as his own coordinator was a mistake almost from the beginning of the season.

By concentrating strictly on being the head coach, maybe we’ll see a different, hopefully smarter, Pat Shurmur next season. That’s where his bosses enter the picture. They must furnish him with the pieces and parts necessary to start crafting at least a competitive team.

Right now, the Browns are anything but competitive. They play hit-and-miss football. Just when it appears they show signs of elevating their game, they make dumb mistakes. That’s the M.O. of a bad team.

It’ll be interesting to see if Holmgren, Heckert and Shurmur try to sugarcoat this season as they wrap it up and start prepping for the 2012 season. Fans have seen enough bad football by the Browns to know when they’re being conned.

The glass-is-half-full routine doesn’t work when you lose 12 games in a 16-game season. The best approach is to be honest. Admit there’s more room for improvement than originally believed. Then do something about it.

A good start will be wise moves in free agency followed by the college draft. This team needs a lot of fresh blood. And with the fourth pick in every round, the Browns stand a much better chance of improving than with the sixth or seventh choice.

That’s why it was so important that Wallace’s pass that floated down toward the end zone through the swirling snow fell incomplete.

It’s a start.