Friday, March 29, 2013

Muddled messages from the top

Joe Banner is not a dumb man.

He might not be what you’d call a solid football man, but he is no dummy.

So there was more than just a little method to the Browns’ CEO’s madness the other day when he made the radio rounds to hoist Brandon Weeden onto his own little pedestal.

Now that the Browns have somewhat revolutionized the radio industry by placing their games simultaneously on three stations, Banner felt the need to step forth and be heard on a couple of those stations.

He anointed Weeden the club’s starting quarterback, but attached a huge caveat. “There will be competition,” he told one listeners at one of the stations. “He’ll have to come in and play well and work hard and prove he deserves to maintain the position he’s in.”

That stance serves two purposes. It mollifies those who believe the second-year quarterback was saddled last season by an offense that was the total opposite of his talents and he deserves a second chance with a system more suited to those talents.

And it quiets those who believe competition at that position is counterproductive. It’s good to know the team is taking a firm stand on what could be a negative in training camp. There’s nothing like a quarterback controversy to bog things down.

The job, at least according to Banner, is Weeden’s to lose. Newly signed Jason Campbell must come in and completely outplay the incumbent in four exhibition games to wrest the job away.

Check that. Make that three exhibition games because, as we all know, the final meaningless game is more meaningless because the starters play one series, if that. That last exhibition is used mostly to determine who fills out the roster at the bottom end.

So that means Weeden and Campbell will battle it out over a period of about, maybe, nine quarters in the first three games.

And what happens when Campbell plays with second- and third-stringers? Same with Weeden. You can bet coach Rob Chudzinski will want to see both men play with the other starters, but there aren’t enough quarters in the first three games to get an accurate reading on either man in that scenario.

There just isn’t enough time to evaluate both men and make a wise decision as to who opens the regular season. So unless Weeden really bottoms out in the new offense in his limited time, he doesn’t lose the job. Right?

“We’re going to go through minicamps and training camp and by the time we get to the first game, our goal is to play whoever the best players are,” Banner said. “So (Campbell) will certainly get a chance to compete.”

Citing performance in minicamps and training camp will factor into the decision, the CEO backed off his Weeden position on another station. “I feel like we’re at a to-be-determined position,” he said. “Frankly, that’s not really where you want to be.”

Even though Banner smartly does not relegate last season’s starter to a backup status, it’ll be interesting to see how his seeming lack of faith in Weeden impacts on the quarterback.

So where does Banner really stand with Weeden? We really don’t know. Depends on which radio station you listened to. He seemed to talk out of both sides of his mouth.

Get used to it. There’s a lot more of the same on the way. Just be careful what you choose to believe.

As I said, the man is no dummy. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The mediocrity machine churns out another one

The signing of Jason Campbell by the Browns Wednesday signals the end of Colt McCoy’s embattled tenure as a member of Cleveland’s professional football team.

The Browns haven’t said anything that would lead anyone to believe that, but do not believe for a moment that he’ll be wearing the Seal Brown and Orange in the club’s season opener in September.

That’s not going to happen. The young man from Texas is as good as gone. How he departs and to whom has yet to be determined, but it will eventuate.

The quarterbacks roster on the team is filled to overflow with Brandon Weeden, McCoy, Thad Lewis and now Campbell. Someone will go and McCoy is the most logical candidate.

There is no question Campbell was brought in to provide competition for Weeden, who strangely has received absolutely no support from the new coaching staff. It’s almost as though he’s a pariah.

Loved the quotes accompanying the Campbell signing. “Jason is an established leader who has started a number of games . . . and has had success,” said coach Rob Chudzinski. “He brings us a veteran presence and a good set of tools.”

What Chudzinski said was actually nothing. Just words strung together that had no substantive meaning. Yes, Campbell is “an established leader who has started a number of games.” So? As for the “had success” part, that’s debatable.

And the new quarterback brings the Browns “a veteran presence.” That’s right. He’s played in the NFL for seven seasons. And he “has a good set of tools.” Yep. He has a strong arm and big (6-5, 230 pounds) body.

So how does all that translate to winning football?

CEO Joe Banner chimed in, calling Campbell “a veteran player who has been productive throughout his career and will be a good addition to our team.”

Really? In what way will he be a good addition to the Browns? He never said. As for Campbell’s production, let’s examine that production.

Campbell, at 31 two years older than Weeden, arrives with a whole lot of question marks. He is 31-40 as a starter, has thrown only 76 touchdown passes in 77 National Football League games, been picked off 52 times and fumbled the ball 48 times, 34 while dropping back to pass.

That's "a good addition?"

Is Campbell the kind of quarterback you want leading the Browns? If you’re going to get roughly the same production from Weeden, doesn’t it make sense to go with the second-year man rather than someone who has a meaningful relationship with mediocrity?

Besides, Weeden should thrive a lot more with the Norv Turner offense than he did with the stodgy and mundane offense of Pat Shurmur and Brad Childress last season. Even then, he threw for nearly 3,400 yards and just 17 picks – and, yes, only 14 touchdown passes – in 517 attempts.

Campbell threw for more than 3,400 yards just once. That was in 2009 with the Washington Redskins when he compiled 3,618 yards with a career-high 20 TD passes and (also career-high) 15 interceptions.

Campbell has proven he’s nothing more than a journeyman quarterback wherever he’s been. The only thing going for him is that he is familiar with the new Cleveland offense, having run it in his two years with the Oakland Raiders.

The coach and CEO say they believe in Weeden, but it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see that’s not the case. If they did, why bring in a journeyman like Campbell? His career has been nothing short of ordinary.

He’s an interception and fumble machine who can be counted on thrilling you one minute and breaking your heart the next. Haven’t we seen that before? I give you Tim Couch, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Jake Delhomme and Derek Anderson.

The parade of ordinary or less than ordinary quarterbacks is part of the reason this franchise had floundered for the better part of 14 seasons. The quarterbacks merry-go-round keeps spinning. Only the faces change.

The odd man out will be McCoy, whose misfortune was to be drafted by a team that did not provide him with a fit best suited to his talents. We’ll never know exactly what those talents are because the Browns change coordinators quicker than they change light bulbs in their Berea headquarters.

We do know, however, that McCoy does not own a strong arm and that’s one of the essentials of running a Turner offense. Being able to stretch the field is a primary requisite. Weeden and Campbell fit that description.

And when the Browns release McCoy, most likely because no one will trade for him, the front office will say nice things about him. They’ll thank him for his contributions and wish him well with whoever picks him off the waiver wire.

We don’t know anything yet about Weeden because he was hampered last season. What we do know is he was extremely efficient at Oklahoma State running the spread offense. If Turner is smart and wants Weeden to win the job, he’ll tailor the Cleveland offense to suit his talents. Not the other way around.

Right now, a segment of Browns Nation is excited about the Campbell signing. And that segment will not be satisfied with anything other than Campbell under center in the season opener.

If that is the case, then all those words of praise for Weeden by Banner, Chudzinski and, in absentia, Mike Lombardi, will be rendered meaningless. It could even be placed under the category of damning with faint praise.

If Campbell beats out Weeden for the starting job based on their performances in meaningless exhibition games, you can expect the club once again to wind up looking up at the rest of the AFC North from its semi-permanent residence – the basement.

Some things never change.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Please pass the NoDoz

The less said – or in this case written – about it, the better.

The Browns have signed free agents Kellen Davis and Chris Owens to one-year contracts.

Don’t get too excited about these signings. In fact, don’t get excited at all. Both are underachievers.

Davis, 27, is a 6-7, 270-pound tight end who has trouble catching the football. And Owens, 26, is just another small cornerback.

Davis certainly is a big enough target, but you’d think that after five National Football League seasons, he would have more than 47 catches for 529 yards. He doesn’t seem to be the type of tight end who fits in a Norv Turner offense.

The Browns need size in the secondary, especially at cornerback. So they go out and sign the 5-9 Owens. Makes perfect sense.  This is the guy, by the way, who lost his job last season as Atlanta’s nickelback. What are the football guys in Berea thinking?

And they’re reportedly hot after Brent Grimes, another cornerback. He’s a whopping 5-10 and will be 30 years old in July. Oh, and he’s coming off Achilles’ tendon surgery.

When are the Browns, namely Joe Banner since he’s taking credit and blame for all things Browns these days, thinking? Doesn’t he realize wide receivers are bigger and faster these days? Why go after midgets?

Summing it all up: Davis, Owens and maybe Grimes. Big whoop. More like big yawn.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Playing the 'Where's Mike?' game

Well, well, well. It sure looks as though Joe Banner is becoming a little Napoleon.

The Browns' Chief Executive Officer’s stance with regard to the handling of his general manager sure conjures up thoughts of dictatorship.

Earlier this week, Banner made it quite clear to the Cleveland media that Mike Lombardi, his general manager, is off limits to the media. He wants to keep the man he hired away from the glare of the media because “he’s a little bit of a lightning rod.”

It’s no secret that Lombardi has no problem sharing his thoughts – good, bad or otherwise – when it comes to evaluating National Football League player personnel, either in the league or on the way. He did it for the last five years with the NFL Network.

But since being initially appointed player personnel chief and then promoted to general manager a few weeks ago, Lombardi has been notoriously silent. And absent. No one knows where he is.

Only Banner and coach Rob Chudzinski have been front and center at news conferences announcing prominent free-agent signings, presumably with Lombardi’s hardy approval. The Browns, it would appear, are playing a game of “Where’s Mike” with the media.

Normally, general managers in all sports are present at news conferences announcing significant signings or trades. That’s the norm. They are paid the big bucks to make the command decisions and then step up to explain why.

Not in Cleveland. At least not with the NFL team.

“Mike is a little bit of a lightning rod,” Banner told the Cleveland media earlier this week at the NFL’s annual meetings in Phoenix. “Distraction won’t serve anybody’s interests. He’s got a tremendous amount of work to do right now.”

Banner, who earlier took the blame for hiring Lombardi despite the GM’s questionable past in Cleveland, took the “blame-me” stance again in Phoenix. But “there won’t be a shortage of someone to hold accountable . . . He’s not going to be hidden,” he said.

It sure looks that way, though. “(Lombardi) is not going to be somebody over time you won’t have an opportunity to talk to,” Banner added. “But as I say, there are no accountability issues. I’m sitting here and you can hold me accountable for whatever we do.”

He went on to say that “there will be a time when (Lombardi) is visible and speaking, but I think at the moment, it’s at least in our best interests to have him focused on what he’s doing . . .“

And when we next see and hear from Lombardi, will his puppet strings be as visible as he is? Or will Banner once again flex his muscles and muzzle him?

And where is Jimmy Haslam III in all this? Surely, the owner knows what’s going on. Banner’s handling of the matter appears strangely to have his seal of approval.

Are the denizens of the Ivory Tower in Berea afraid there will be a negative reaction if Lombardi is permitted to come out of hiding? Do they fear he’ll say the wrong thing? If so, what does that tell you about the hire to begin with?

This is most bizarre. Fans deserve to know just why the team makes certain personnel moves. And they need to hear it from the man most responsible for those moves. They need to hear from Lombardi.

If he is shielded because the club is fearful of a public backlash, then the Browns hired the wrong man. If not, then trot him out to become personally accountable for any and all moves.

No one cares what Banner thinks about the personnel. He is not the GM. He is the CEO. He is not a football man. Lombardi is. Chudzinski is. They're the guys fans expect to see in front of the cameras and microphones. Not Banner.

It’s Banner’s job to run the organization from the top and make certain all aspects of the business run smoothly. That includes unshackling his general manager. Lift his Cone of Silence.

Sometimes, the right moves are made for the right reasons. And sometimes, the wrong moves are made for the wrong reasons. The Lombardi Silent Treatment falls into the latter category.

It’s time for Banner to shed his Napoleonic image and free him.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Going halfway with the NFL

The National Football League got it half right.

The league’s powerful competition committee is sending a recommendation to the owners to ban helmet hits by running backs in order to cut down on head-to-head collisions.

The new rule would penalize running backs, or any ball carrier, from using the crown of his helmet outside the tackle box. It’s just another attempt to limit head injuries and thus make the game safer.

The proposed rule says nothing about defensive players who use the helmet crown to make plays. In fact, they are the real culprits in the rising number of concussions around the NFL.

That’s what I mean when I say the league got it half right. All helmet hits should be penalized. Players on both sides of the ball should not be permitted to use the helmet as a weapon.

The helmet is designed to protect, not injure. Because it is constructed so well, players on both sides of the ball have become a lot braver when it comes to dipping the helmet to either absorb a blow or deliver it.

The rule against spearing is so vague, officials have no idea how or when to call it. Too many times we have seen violent helmet-to-helmet hits go unpunished because officials swallow their whistles.

Any wonder the concussion rate is going up all around football, not just the NFL? A lot of the blame should be placed with the coaching of players on all levels. Improper techniques are being taught. All the players are doing is following instruction.

Before the helmet was improved from a safety standpoint, you never saw concussions. That’s because there were no helmet hits. Proper tackling technique made it so.

No one in the dark ages of the NFL wanted to use his head as a weapon for fear of seriously hurting himself. Helmets were a lot softer and far less protective. Tackling back then was much more efficient. Wrapping and falling in order to drop ball carriers was the norm. Shoulders and arms were sufficient enough to get the job done.

It’s true, though, that today’s athletes are bigger, faster and quicker. And that’s what they are: athletes. The NFL landscape is dotted with many more athletes than pure football players.

Today, we see players launch themselves at ball carriers rather than employ good, old-fashioned techniques. An old coaching caveat goes like this: Leave your feet and you take yourself out of the play if you don’t make the tackle. Stay on your feet and you have a much better chance of making the play.

When he heard about the new proposal, Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith was dumbfounded. “If I’m a running back and I’m running into a linebacker, you’re telling me I have to keep my head up so he can take my chin off?” he said during an interview with a Dallas radio station. “You’ve absolutely lost your mind.”

If that linebacker doesn’t have his helmet tucked to make the tackle, there’s nothing wrong with using a straight arm against him or dropping a shoulder and powering through him. That’s perfectly legitimate. No need to use the helmet.

That’s why the rule should also take into consideration what the defensive players should not be allowed to do with regard to the helmet. Reteach today’s defensive players to use their arms and shoulders to make a play rather than their helmets. Level the competitive field. That way, reactions like Smith’s will be rendered moot.

Take the helmet out of the game completely and permanently. Reword the new proposal to make the helmet nothing more than an instrument for protection, not harm.

And watch the concussion rate begin to drop.

A lot of $$$$ for part-timers

That’s it? As Peggy Lee once asked in song, “Is that All There Is?”

Yep, it appears as though the Browns are done with free agency for the time being, roping in four players with varying degrees of worth.

And not one of them comes attached with a label that says full-time player. So far, they have latched on to specialists. Three of them, however, fit the profile of what Ray Horton seeks. The fourth, tight end Gary Barnidge, is strictly a special teams player.

The Browns’ new defensive coordinator wants to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks at all times. And in Paul Kruger, Desmond Bryant and Quentin Groves, he now has the heat-seeking missiles with which to work.

The Browns are spending an awful lot of money on players who will see the field slightly more than half the time. Kruger is not a three-down player. Neither are Bryant and Groves.

Kruger, who has started only a handful of games during his four-year National Football League career, believes he can become a full-time performer. But there’s a reason he started just six games for the Baltimore Ravens. He’s not that good when not rushing the passer.

He had the opportunity last season to stake his claim to a starting job when the Ravens did not resign Jarret Johnson. But he was beaten out by rookie Courtney Upshaw and second-year man Albert McClellan.

Kruger sure can rush the quarterback. It is hard to ignore his 13½ sacks last season. Four came in the playoffs, showing his ability to step up in big games.

But outside linebackers have other duties and he wasn’t good enough to crack the starting lineup except when injuries to other linebackers dictated otherwise.

And in Cleveland, he won’t have the luxury of playing behind Haloti Ngata, who occupies two – and sometimes three – offensive linemen. The reason Ravens linebackers are so successful is that players like Ngata keep them clean. No one with the Browns fits the Ngata mold.

There is no questioning Kruger’s energy level. As they like to say in the NFL, he plays with a high motor. His relentless determination on every play should serve as motivation to his teammates.

Playing that way, however, can be a detriment. At 6-4 and 270 pounds, there is the danger of wearing down. And the more he wears down, the less effective he becomes.

In some ways, he reminds me of Matt Roth, the outside linebacker the Browns picked up on waivers from the Miami Dolphins in late November 2009. Roth was plugged into the lineup immediately and made a strong impression with four sacks in the final six games of the season. After compiling just 3½ sacks the next season, the 6-4, 270-pounder was allowed to escape via free agency.

Roth, like Kruger, was a college defensive end who was converted into an outside linebacker. And like Kruger, he never took plays off. The only difference is Roth became a starter in his third pro season.

Same size, same demeanor on the field, same position. Same result?

The question is whether the Browns will get their money’s worth ($41 million over five years). Is Kruger a situational player like he was in Baltimore? Or will he bust out and become a star as a full-time player with the Browns?

Same with Bryant and Groves, two specialists who will be nothing more than part-timers with the Browns.

The crowd at defensive tackle is already overloaded with the likes of Ahtyba Rubin, Phil Taylor, John Hughes, Billy Winn and Ishmaa’ily Kitchen. In a 4-3 scheme, that’s the perfect number for the position.

But in Horton’s 3-4 alignment, it’s way too many. So where is Bryant going to play? His strength is bringing pressure up the middle from defensive tackle. And if he plays the nose, where does everyone else move to?

Bryant most likely will be moved out to defensive end, where he will encounter much bigger guys protecting their quarterback. And we don’t know how effective he can be out on the flank.

Basically, the defensive line in the 3-4 is comprised of tackles. Big, beefy guys who can stop the run. The quicker pass rushers are usually moved to outside linebacker, which is where Jabaal Sheard probably will wind up. And the question there is how hard will it be for Sheard to adapt to a position he’s never played.

Where does it leave the likes of Rubin, Taylor and Kitchen, all nose-tackle types. And do Hughes and Winn move to defensive end?

Right now, the Browns have way too many defensive linemen for the new scheme. The numbers game will catch up with at least two of the aforementioned unless Horton comes up with some brilliant scheme to involve everyone.

As for character, the Browns don’t seem to mind that Bryant brings along some baggage. In awarding him with a $34 million contract, they seem confident his penchant for getting into trouble off the field is in his past.

Beating up a man in a Myrtle Beach, S.C., convenience store parking lot in June 2010, and getting arrested last month for what has been described as “criminal mischief” at a friend’s house are signs the young man has problems.

His mug shot from the latest incident has gone viral. One can understand why.

He has been the butt of numerous jokes from that picture, especially since late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel dubbed it “Dezzzing.”

Nice. And embarrassing.

Bryant might be a Harvard graduate with a degree in economics, but he has proven that even Harvard grads can do stupid things. How that translates to the football field remains to be seen.

Groves, rescued by Horton last season in Arizona, is strictly a specialist. He does nothing more than rush the passer. That’s it. That’s how he is most effective. Other than that, he’s either a special teamer or on the sideline. He’s a third-and-long player. Period.

A lot of fans are excited about the Kruger and Bryant signings. They anticipate a substantial rise in the number of sacks. What they should hope for is more consistency in that department.

Last season, the Browns posted a modest 38 sacks in 16 games, six more than the previous season. But they produced 22 of those sacks (nearly 58%) in four games. In the other 12 games, they nailed opposing quarterbacks just 16 times.

There were too many times when the pass rush disappeared in 2012. With the likes of Kruger, Bryant and Groves, the Browns are gambling that will not happen this season. After all, isn’t that what free agency is all about?

Bring on the college draft.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

It's that time once again

It’s silly season once again around the National Football League.

It’s that time of the year where rumors float perilously in the blogosphere and take on lives of their own.

The Browns are talking to this guy, says one report. Another report champions the notion they covet that guy.

The need to be first to report any connection between team and player or agent is what drives a lot of these suppositions. It seems that the more names thrown against an imaginary wall, the more likely you’ll be correct in some respect.

It’s fascinating as journalists and bloggers – note the difference – attempt to climb into the minds and war room of, in this case, the Browns. With this new regime, though, it’s almost impossible to determine exactly what’s happening.

Thus far, it appears as though Joe Banner and his henchmen are just as tight-lipped, if not more so, than the previous three regimes. Transparency is an obscene word in their vocabulary. They wrap their plans tightly and drop the cone of silence over them.

National Football League teams generally do not leak information of any kind to the media. That kind if stuff is reserved for those who ply their trade in the world of politics.

When the gun starting free agency is fired today at 4, it gets even worse. That’s when player agents plant stories in order to get their clients the best deal possible. There is no honor among them.

The Browns, of course, will shop the free-agent market. When you’re $45 million under the salary cap and have a fan base absolutely starved for a winner, you’ll do anything to placate them. Even if it means overspending.

Lots of names are being mentioned as possibilities to win up in Seal Brown and Orange and fans who take such blathering seriously are the same fans who are disappointed when the Browns lose out.

There are some nice players out there who would fit in nicely with this team. One of the most intriguing is unrestricted free agent guard Nick Levitre, who played solid football under the radar in Buffalo. The Browns definitely need to upgrade that position.

Notice there was no mention of the Browns contacting his agent. If you want rumors like that, head somewhere else. We deal with facts here.

Now, let’s sit back, watch the facts roll in and then comment. That’s when the silliness stops.