Monday, July 30, 2012

Thinking out loud
A little of this and a little of that . . .

Now is not the time of the season to be gnashing teeth over what the Browns are trying to accomplish.

Chill, people. This is training camp, for goodness sake, that time of the year when things go wrong and not much is done correctly. That’s why training camp is held. To identify and then correct those mistakes.

So what if Brandon Weeden throws a couple of interceptions? Or fumbles a snap? Or misses a wide-open receiver? Or parts his hair on the wrong side?

So what if Mo Massaquoi runs the wrong route that leads to one of those interceptions? Or drops a perfect pass? Or parts his hair on the wrong side?

So what if Trent Richardson misses a block? Or has trouble holding on to swing passes? Or fails to hit the right hole? Or parts his hair . . .

Get a grip, guys and gals. No need to get bent out of shape. This is training camp (not spelled out in capital letters deliberately, although the urge to do so is increasingly difficult to control). It’s the time of season dedicated to the learning process.

Now if this all spills over into the regular season, that’s an entirely different matter.

Weeden, who seems to be an intelligent man, is a rookie. And rookies make mistakes. Some are corrected immediately. Others take time.  And time will tell whether he’s the real deal.

So cool it with the daily scorecard. Don’t scrutinize and dissect every play in training camp as though it will have a meaningful bearing on what eventually takes place during the regular season.

Instead, watch the learning curve as it unfolds along the way. Are Weeden, Richardson and all the other young pieces and parts improving on a daily basis? Rather than carping on the mistakes of today, concentrate and judge on a comparative basis.

This is a young football team on offense. Be patient with its growth. . . .

Even though it’s not a complete addition by subtraction, the fact that Randy Lerner will eventually slink into the background once the sale of the club to Jimmy Haslam III is complete is a very good sign.

Reportedly, Lerner will retain a 30% stake in the following Haslam’s (reported) $920 million purchase of 70% of the club. That brings the club’s worth to $1.315 billion, far greater than Forbes Magazine’s $977 million estimate.

Given his previous aversion to the spotlight, Lerner’s eventual removal from the every-day operation of the team will make him the quintessential silent partner, a role for which he was born. Remaining in the background is what he does best, anyway. . . .

When the Haslam deal is finally approved and Joe Banner, as strongly rumored, takes over as team president, don’t look for any immediate shakeup on or off the field.

There is worry in some quarters that the new regime will blow the team up again and start over. That will not be the case. If anything, it will be changed slowly because there is a decent-sized core of significant players.

If anything, the Ivory Tower might be blown up sooner and that’s not a bad thing. Haslam and his people will want to create a different culture and atmosphere, which means new faces will take up residence at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. in Berea. . . .

Look for conspiracy theorists to come out in full force once Haslam takes over. Here’s the latest scenario being bounced around the Internet:

Haslam is a huge Tennessee guy. Lives there. He’s a big booster of the Volunteers. His brother is governor there. And was rebuffed in his attempt to purchase the National Football League Titans from Bud Adams.

Factor in now that the league desperately wants to get back into the Los Angeles market, which has been vacant since the Rams left for St. Louis following the 1994 season. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wants a team in the nation’s second-largest market as soon as possible.

OK, here’s where the conspiracy theory kicks in.

Adams moves his Titans to the Los Angeles market, leaving Nashville to Haslam. It makes good sense from an NFL standpoint. Haslam the billionaire, even though he promised never to move the Browns, would have no trouble breaking the Cleveland stadium lease (which ends in 2029) because he can more than afford to pay it off.

Not saying it’s going to happen. But it certainly has at least a small degree of plausibility.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Buh-bye, Randy

It will be extremely difficult to imagine the Cleveland Browns of the 21st century owned by anyone other that someone named Lerner.

The last 13 seasons under the Lerner brand have produced some of the darkest days, weeks, months and years in the history of this storied franchise. Under that brand, the Browns became the laughingstock of the National Football League.

If there was a bad move to be made, Randy Lerner somehow made it. He and the men he chose to run the team plunged professional football in Cleveland back to the Dark Ages.

In those 13 seasons, the Browns registered just two winning campaigns and one appearance in the playoffs. Double-digit loss seasons became commonplace – 10 to be exact.

And now comes the dawn of an era that certainly can’t be any worse than what Browns Nation has been forced to suffer through in what has turned out to be those unlucky 13 seasons.

Now comes a fresh face, a new name and hopefully a whole new attitude and approach. Here comes Jimmy Haslam III, a southern gentleman on the verge of buying the Browns from Lerner.

Haslam, whose Tennessee family fortune is reportedly in excess of $3 billion, is what Lerner is not. And I don’t mean billionaire, although Lerner’s wealth has diminished to the $900 million neighborhood. Haslam is a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool football fan who couldn’t care less about soccer.

When his purchase of the Browns is complete, he will divest himself in his 16% ownership of the Pittsburgh Steelers and begin a whole new era of pro football in Cleveland. The dark clouds that have hung over this franchise will disappear.

Haslam, who tried to buy his native Tennessee Titans a few years ago, will be a refreshing new face. The stolid Lerner ownership, which appeared to accept losing with way too much casualness, will be gone. Finally. 

How quickly the Haslam way of doing things translates to the Browns won’t be known for a while. However long it takes, it promises to be a lot more exciting than what we’ve had to endure under the Lerner brand.

Fresh blood is what this franchise needs and fresh blood is what it will get. It is assumed Haslam will not tolerate losing, especially with a team that seems headed in the right direction.

It will be very interesting to see how long the new owner, once the sale goes through, waits before making decisions that affect the team.

Browns President Mike Holmgren has to be wondering how safe his job is although he still has three years remaining on his contract. And what other dominoes could fall if Haslam decides to clean house?

How safe are General Manager Tom Heckert Jr. and coach Pat Shurmur? If Haslam’s intent is to change the culture of the organization, their jobs definitely could be in jeopardy.

Most new owners like to bring in their own people. Rarely do those on board at the time of the purchase survive. Job security be damned. New owners feel much more comfortable surrounded people they know and trust.

When Haslam takes over, a constituency that has clamored for Lerner’s departure for the better part of the last decade will welcome him unconditionally. He very well might become one of the most popular men in town. That is, of course, if he decides to move to Cleveland.

Even if he chooses to be an absentee owner and remain in Knoxville, Tenn., all will be forgiven if he molds the Browns into a winner. It doesn’t take much to gain that kid of popularity in Cleveland.

It also shouldn’t take long before Haslam realizes what a great fan base he’s buying into. As a minority owner of the Steelers, he has seen up close just how great the Cleveland-Pittsburgh rivalry can become again.

If nothing else, it will be oh so refreshing to see someone else at the top of the team directory.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What are they thinking?

The National Football League prides itself on the strength of The Shield. Mess with The Shield and trouble will follow.

The Shield represents all that is right with the NFL. Best football on the planet. Cleanest sport on the planet. No other professional sports league has prospered more and experienced more success than the NFL.

So why in the world would this highly successful pro sports enterprise mess around with the men who officiate their games? Why upset the competitive balance by locking out officials?

That’s exactly what’s happening now less than a month before the start of the exhibition season. Until a labor agreement is worked out with the zebras, we can look forward to – well, maybe that’s a poor choice of words – we will be forced to watch games officiated by relative incompetents.

By using replacement officials, the NFL is asking for more trouble than it is prepared to handle. It’s bad enough when the men hired by the league in the first place make mistakes. Imagine how bad it’s going to be with officials who have never set foot on a professional football field; officials who have no idea of the speed and quickness of the NFL.

“To take seven officials who have not worked Division I games or not worked the last several years and put them on the field has got to be pretty unsettling,” said NFL Referees Association President Scott Green. “Not only to the players and coaches, but to the fans. The players have plenty of things to worry about on the field. They don’t need to be worrying about the officials.”

The chaos such a scenario would cause works in the officials’ favor. What’s hard to believe is that the league does not recognize the potential dangers a continued lockout would have. And should it last into the regular season, who knows how dangerous it could become?

For a league that has finally begun to realize the seriousness of concussions and to go to great lengths to reduce and recognize them, it seems rather strange and unusual it would turn its back on the men who help control the ferocity of the game.

It will be a situation fraught with all kinds of unhappiness on a number of levels if we see replacement officials. The players will hate it. Coaches will hate it. Fans will hate it. Complaining will be a daily occurrence. Sports talk shows will explode with all kinds of rhetoric.

It’s not as though the officials being locked out are asking for the moon. All they want is a better contract than the last one they bargained for in 2007.

The league, however, stands firmly behind the replacement officials if it should come to that.. “Our goal is to maintain the highest quality of officiating for our teams, players and fans, including proper enforcement of the playing rules and management of our games,” the league said in a prepared statement.

“We are confident that these game officials will enforce rules relating to player safety. Contrary to NFLRA leadership, we do not believe players will ‘play dirty’ or intentionally break the rules.”

They are dreaming.

The last time the NFL used replacement officials was the opening weekend of the 2001 season. It was an unmitigated disaster.

According to one report back then, the Oakland Raiders’ game at Kansas City “verged on getting out of control” and that replacement officials “generally were reluctant to call holding penalties in any game.”

Less than two weeks and one game later (after the NFL postponed games the Sunday following 9/11), the regular officials were back after having struck a deal with the league and order was restored quickly. One would think the league would have learned its lesson.

Apparently not.

The Shield should no better. Hopefully, cooler and saner heads will prevail and the league will finally get serious with its officials. The zebras are subjects of criticism during the season, but we don’t know how really good they are until replaced by men who have no clue as to how to control a game on the professional level.

So if the two sides do not reach an agreement, prepare yourself for some ridiculously bad officiating. It’ll give you a whole new perspective on the regular guys.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Silly season
Why is everyone getting bent out of shape because ProFootballWeekly ranked the Browns #32 in its preseason power rankings?

OK, maybe not everyone, but more than a few members of Browns Nation are upset because the Web site had the temerity to award the coveted bottom-of-the-barrel spot to Cleveland.

OK, not coveted. But one has to wonder if the Browns, who seemingly have made positive strides with their off-season moves, warrant something a little better than last place in this contrived poll.

Of course they’re not the worst team in the National Football League. But Mike Florio and his minions had to put someone in the bottom slot and the Browns, whose reputation isn’t exactly the most sterling in NFL circles, seemed to be the right patsy.

Was it done to elicit a vitriolic response? Probably. It received a disappointing (for PFT) 14 responses, only one of the vitriolic variety.

Florio has to know the Browns play one of the toughest schedules in the NFL this season. He also has to know the club will be much better on offense after its draft and subsequent pick of Josh Gordon in the supplemental lottery.

There is no question Cleveland will not be a pushover this season because of that offense. In the past few seasons, the Browns did not possess the capability of coming from behind.

With the likes of Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson, Mitchell Schwartz and maybe (maybe) Gordon, they will never be that far out of a game.

The last time the Browns were able to say that was when Derek Anderson and the 2007 Browns racked up a 10-6 record. They were never out of a game that exciting season.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, that very well could be the case this season. And that’s what makes PFT’s choice rather puzzling.

The 2012 season could wind up so exciting, Florio and his minions will look back on the #32 pre-season PFT power ranking they assigned Cleveland and wonder where they went wrong. Then they’ll sit back and chuckle.

That’s the beauty (and fun) of putting together such a ranking. No games have been played. No practices have been held. Every team has a spotless record at this point.

No one should take the ranking seriously. The Florio group doesn’t. Not really. Neither should you.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A desperate gamble
It’s hard to say whether Tom Heckert Jr. is a huge gambler or just desperate.

The most cavernous hole in the Browns’ roster is at wide receiver. The club general manager knew that, although he never came out and admitted it.

In the April college football draft, Heckert waited until the fourth round to address the problem, selecting Travis Benjamin, a skinny little wideout from Miami of Florida, whose largest contribution this season most likely will be as a punt returner.

So when Josh Gordon made himself available in the National Football League’s supplemental draft Thursday, Heckert decided to strengthen his team’s biggest weakness.

By using a second-round pick to take the former Baylor wideout, the Browns forfeited their second-round choice in next year’s draft.

Some consider that a massive gamble since Gordon, suspended for the 2011 season after testing positive for marijuana, hasn’t lined up for a play from scrimmage since late December in 2010.

Others consider the move one of desperation considering the high price Heckert was willing to sacrifice in order to beef up his wide receiver corps. Had it been any other player at any other position, Heckert probably would have passed.

So was it a gamble? Or a desperate move?


No question that Heckert allowed himself to fall in love with the 6-3, 225-pound Gordon, most likely envisioning him lining up opposite 6-2, 220-pound Greg Little.

Give rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden a couple of huge targets like that and there’s no telling how effective he can be. The whole Cleveland offensive dynamic changes.

Throw in Trent Richardson gouging holes in opposing lines and you have, potentially, the kind of an offense Cleveland pro football fans haven’t seen for way too long. Stress the word potentially.

Heckert is clearly gambling the spindly-legged Gordon can come in right away and make a difference. “I don’t know if it’s risky,” the GM said. “That is kind of where we thought he was as a player. Obviously, he’s a guy who can come in here and be a starter for us and make plays.”

In his only full season at Baylor, Gordon caught 42 passes for 714 yards and seven touchdowns. Fellow Baylor receiver Kendall Wright, targeted by the Browns in the regular draft in April only to see Tennessee sneak in and take him first, caught 78 passes that season for 952 yards and seven TDs.

The Browns have to be thinking that Gordon, had he stayed clean, would have put up numbers in 2011 that would have projected him into the first round of that draft.

But what about Gordon’s off-the-field problems? He says they are behind him and that he’s learned his lesson.

“We kind of did our homework on him,” said Heckert. “We brought the kid in. I talked to a zillion guys and I couldn’t find one guy to say something bad about the kid.”

And yet there was more than a tinge of desperation in the move. The Browns own one of the worst wide receiver corps in the NFL. Maybe the worst. Grabbing Gordon so high pretty much quietly verifies that assessment.

Heckert knows it and wants to give Weeden as much help as he can in his first season. So when Gordon came along, the GM realized this might be his best chance to do something right away rather than waiting until next year’s college lottery.

He pretty much justified it when he said, “We’re getting a really good football player and we’re getting him a year early.”

Now the big question becomes: How much of a significant contribution can Gordon realistically make in the Cleveland offense this season? Stress the word realistically.

There’s so much we don’t know about Gordon. We can go only by the hype his appearance in this draft engendered.

For instance, we don’t know what kind of a route runner he is. Or what kind of blocker he is.

What we do know is he has huge hands and catches the ball with them. Not against his chest. With his hands. That’s a distinct improvement right there for the Browns.

Then there’s the rust factor. He hasn’t played a game in 18 months. So what, you say? Did you notice how much Little struggled last season after sitting out a season following a suspension at North Carolina?

Gordon is also starting his NFL career with two strikes against him. He was arrested after falling asleep at a Taco Bell drive-thru where the police found marijuana in the car. And then the positive test for marijuana. Whether he has reformed remains to be seen.

Who knows? Maybe the Browns will get lucky again with the supplemental phase of the draft. The last time they became interested, they maneuvered into position to select Bernie Kosar in 1985.

And we all know where that led.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Dealing with reality
Colt McCoy is either delusional or else he’s not paying attention.

The young Browns quarterback, who will be under center in the season opener against Philadelphia only if Brandon Weeden has a complete meltdown between now and then, still believes he has a chance to win the starting job,

He told Abilene (Texas) Reporter-News reporter Joey Richards that it’s a matter of finishing the job. “I’ve always been a guy that wants to finish what he starts,” he said.

He says all he wants – and forgive the notion that this might be belaboring the situation – is a chance to beat out Weeden. That is not going to happen. Not in training camp. Not in the exhibition games. And certainly not this season.

McCoy said it is “part of my nature” to fight for what he believes is rightfully his job. “You’re getting everything I have, whether it’s working, preparing, studying or practicing,” he told Richards at his youth football camp in Abilene recently.

Then in a moment of stark reality, he added, “Unfortunately, a lot of things are out of my control. The main thing for me is not to worry about those things I can’t control. I have to go in, do my job and have high character and compete my tail off if the opportunity is available.”

Therein lies the problem. It isn’t available. That opportunity no longer exists.

McCoy has nothing but nice things to say about the town in which he plies his trade. “I really like Cleveland,” he said. “I love the town. I love the fans. I think they truly deserve a winning football team.

“That’s what I want to do. I want to be there for the ride of turning that thing around. We’ll see what happens.”

If there is such a turnaround, it won’t be because of McCoy since he most likely will be a spectator on the sidelines with a clipboard in his hands.

He had his chance. It didn’t work out for any number of reasons. The only way he gets a second chance with the Browns – if they don’t either trade or release him – will be if Weeden disappoints.

That’s not likely to occur unless the rookie surrenders to the pressure that is certain to accompany him throughout the season. Unless the Browns’ brass seriously misjudged him, which is a remote possibility, Weeden will be the starter for many years to come.

It’s comforting that McCoy is buoyed by his confident nature. It won’t take long before he realizes – if he doesn’t realize it already – that Weeden exudes the same brand of confidence.

And that, plus the fact the Browns’ brass has bet heavily on him to succeed, should enough to jolt McCoy into realizing his future contributions to the Browns are limited at best.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Easy now, rook
It’s one thing in the sports world to be confident of your abilities and talent.

It’s quite another when that confidence turns into cockiness.

And then there’s Trent Richardson.

The Browns’ rookie running back, who has yet to get his first National Football League carry, has taken confidence and cockiness to a new level.

“I want to be the best thing that ever happened to Cleveland,” he told Fox Sports at last week’s NFL Rookie Symposium in suburban Cleveland. “I want to be that type of all-time guy when it comes down to it.”

Ah, the innocence of youth. The naiveté of youth.

There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious. But to take it to such extreme levels gives off the wrong impression of the young man.

It appears as though he’s reacting – maybe overreacting – to Jim Brown’s contention that he is nothing more than an “ordinary” running back.

The former Browns great, probably overreacting himself to the notion that the young man from Alabama is the best running back to come out of the draft since Adrian Peterson, has had an uneasy relationship with the new front office lately and the prized rookie is his latest target.

Richardson no doubt wants to prove Brown incorrect; that he’s anything but ordinary. But he resorts to hyperbole to get his message across.

He doesn’t have to.

Sure, he didn’t say he will be the best thing that ever happened to Cleveland; that he will be that type of all-time guy when it comes down to it.

But the fact he addressed the subject in the first place showed he was hurt by Brown’s remarks and this was the only way he could strike back. It didn’t have to be.

I prefer the kind of athlete who keeps his mouth shut, goes out and does his job well, takes pride in his accomplishments and allows that to speak for him. In his nine seasons with the Browns, that’s the kind of player Brown was.

He said very little, at least not publicly, went about his business and let that stand as his legacy. And quite a legacy it has been. No one can argue what he accomplished in those nine seasons.

Later in the Fox interview, Richardson allowed that Brown’s remarks would serve as a motivator.

“For him to be an icon and someone you look up to, hopefully I have half the career that man did,” he said. “I haven’t done anything yet. But I know in my head that I’ve got to show everybody I’m not an ordinary running back.

“To hear comments like that is nothing but motivation. I don’t have to debate and talk about my game. I let my film show it.”

Now that’s more like it. Brown’s words obviously stung Richardson. All he has to do now is go out and back up his own words. Quietly.

In the end, when all is said and done, Richardson had better be right or else the fall will be hard, extremely painful and downright embarrassing.