Monday, April 29, 2013

The right to change the grade

Upon further review, and with no help from outside, the Browns’ final grade for the recently concluded National Football League college draft has been changed.

The malodorous aroma that still hovers from what Joe Banner and his merry men accomplished last weekend has convinced me that the C------- grade awarded them was too high.

That grade has now been changed officially to a straight D. No pluses, no minuses. A naked D. As in (a) disastrous, (b) dumb, (c) disgusting or (d) all of the above.

No other way to put it. Banner has set the Browns back at least one season and maybe two with his lame attempt at strengthening his team. Thumb twiddling replaced actual work over a three-day draft period as other members of the AFC North got even stronger.

For way too many seasons, the Browns have looked up at the rest of the division. Cincinnati slipped for a while, but strong drafts have elevated the Bengals back to contender status.

A blip appeared on Pittsburgh’s screen last season, but a very good draft last week is expected to result in a return to contending status for the Steelers.

And Baltimore, of course, rolls merrily along despite losing key performers to free agency and retirement. Ozzie Newsome knows what he’s doing in retooling the Ravens’ roster.

Two seasons from now, when we look back at the fruits of the Browns’ 2013’s labor, we most likely will wonder why certain holes that could have been filled in 2013 remain problem areas because of negligent draft work.

Ask yourself now in what way did the Browns help themselves in this draft?

How many holes did they plug on either side of the ball?

Where did they strengthen a weakness?

In what way has the offense been improved?

Questions seeking answers that aren’t there because the thinking heads who ran this draft never addressed those questions.

There are still holes on the offensive line, at inside linebacker, free safety and cornerback.

Areas of strength include the defensive line, running back, wide receivers (marginally) and pass rush.

Quarterbacking remains in the neutral, undecided category. Brandon Weeden played his rookie season with one hand figuratively tied behind his back. He was the square peg being forced into the round hole.

Playing in Pat Shurmur’s west coast offense magnified his weaknesses. Look for a different quarterback this season with Norv Turner calling the shots. Weeden fits much more comfortably into Turner’s offensive philosophy than he did Shurmur’s.

Otherwise, that’s it. That list of weaknesses could have been reduced with some innovative thinking at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. Instead, they focused on next season, when the draft is expected to be stronger and deeper.

The hell with this season, Banner & Co seemed to be saying. Let’s blow it off and see if we can break into the top five in next April’s draft. That might not be the case, but one can certainly understand how it might be interpreted that way in some corners.

What’s done is done, though. It can’t be changed.

Only the future will furnish the answers.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Puzzling beyond belief

OK. I confess. I have no idea what happened the past three days.

It’s like I’ve been lost in a dream.

I dreamed the Browns entered the National Football League college draft with high hopes of strengthening the team.

And then that dream turned sour because all the Browns did was make some of the strangest moves I’ve seen any team make in the annual lottery.

I dreamed they made their first pick a relatively inexperienced defensive end who projects as an outside linebacker. Kind of a bummer since a very good cornerback, a position of great need, was available.

Nonetheless, I dreamed on.

The second round drifted by without attempting to retrieve the pick they lost when selecting Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft last summer. Why not? Joe Banner makes dreams come true, doesn’t he? Not this time.

All right. No need to panic. There’s always the rest of the draft and Joe will come through for Browns Nation.

I dreamed he chose a little cornerback from San Diego State in the third round. What’s going on here? You have a chance to get a bigger, better corner in the first round and then take a guy who needs to stand on his tiptoes to reach 5-10 in the third round?

This dream is beginning to take on a foul aroma. What’s going on here? I began to stir. What in the world is the rest of the draft going to look like for Cleveland?

It got worse. Much worse. I dreamed Banner made a trade with the Steelers in the fourth round. Yep, the Steelers of Pittsburgh. The dreaded Pittsburgh Steelers. The hated Pittsburgh Steelers. Picked up a third-rounder in next year's draft  for the effort.

Total blasphemy. Damn deal almost woke me up.

The last time the Browns and Steelers swung a trade, Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, the draft lasted 17 rounds and the Browns were a very good football team.

Forty-five years ago, the Browns swindled the Steelers out of quarterback Bill Nelsen and safety Jim Bradshaw for quarterback Dick Shiner, defensive tackle Frank Parker and a draft choice. Nelsen gave the Browns four very good seasons (36-19-1) before his knees finally gave out.

To make matters worse, Banner snubbed his nose at the draft again in the fifth round and collected a second fourth-rounder next year from Indianapolis. What? The Steelers didn’t want to go for the daily double?

Five rounds, two defensive picks for a team crying for help on the other side of the ball. Hope the denizens of the Ivory Tower brought some good reading material because they weren’t doing much drafting.

They perked up temporarily when they picked up a veteran wide receiver, Davone Bess, from the Miami Dolphins in a meh kind of a deal.

The dream picked up speed in the final two rounds with three selections. Either that or someone spiked the decaf.

A safety, defensive end and guard just like that. Wow!! A veritable bonanza. It was as though the middle-round talent stunk, but for some reason the talent level picked up as the draft sped toward its conclusion.

Then something very strange happened. I woke up and found out the dream was not a dream after all. It was very real. And it was every bit a nightmare.

I have watched many drafts over the years. I’ve seen good ones and bad ones. Smart ones and stupid ones. But this one is clearly the most bizarre I’ve seen produced by a Cleveland group. And that takes some doing, especially in the last 14 years.

It actually makes the work of Dwight Clark, Butch Davis, Phil Savage and Eric Mangini look relatively good. Won’t include Tom Heckert Jr. here because he was good to begin with.

When all the dust had cleared, we were all treated to the humming of the Browns’ spin machine. The spinmeisters took center stage on Berea and patted themselves on the back.

Predictably, they used Gordon when rationalizing the events of the past three days “We think of our draft as the five players we drafted today, plus Josh Gordon, plus Bess, plus two quality future draft picks,” Banner told the media.

“When you look at what we did take, before the (Colt) McCoy trade, we had six draft picks. What value did we turn that into? It’s Gordon, Bess, plus the players we picked, plus the two future assets we’ve acquired. And hopefully, we made good decisions with the undrafted guys.”


The rationale continued. “Listen,” he said, “we’re not asking for a free pass this year. We expect to improve. We expect it to be conspicuous. We expect, as you look at the individual players we’ve added and the way that coaches bring them together, get them in sync and be better, we’re not saying we don’t expect to get better. We’re not going to reach all of our goals or fill all our needs this year. But we think we’ll play exciting, aggressive football.”

That’s an awful lot of bullroar packed into one thought. He never uttered the word “winning” in his remarks. Aggressive? Yes, if Rob Chudzinski follows through on his pre-season promises. Exciting? That remains to be seen. As for the free pass, don't worry, Joe. That ain't happening

By pandering to those fans who buy tickets, Banner is just doing his job. Still, he should be made to listen to that nonsense again as a fan rather than the man charged with running the team.

The smart fans will read between the lines and see the three-day exercise that just concluded did not make the Browns any better than they were prior to 8 p.m. Thursday.

Adding Bess and draft selections Barkevious Mingo, Leon McFadden, Jamoris Slaughter, Armonty Bryant and Garrett Gilkey will have little, if any, effect on where the Browns will finish this season. And we all know where that will be.

Don't believe that? Take a look at how the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals did in the draft. Then draw your own conclusions.

No, the likes of Paul Kruger, Desmond Bryant, Quentin Groves and David Nelson will have a much greater impact on how well the the team performs this season.  

Banner was correct in one aspect, although he did not mention their names. In coordinators Ray Horton and Norv Turner, the Browns have hired two of the best. Their acumen in bringing out the best of the talent on board will be put to a severe test, though, since Banner did not help them in this draft.

If this is a portent of things to come from the Banner team, hang on Browns fans. The ride will be exceedingly bumpy.

Final draft grade (trying very hard here to be fair): C-------. About as close to a D as you can get without actually getting it.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Who said it couldn't get worse?

That’s it?

Three rounds of the National Football League college draft over a two-day period and all the Browns come away with are Mutt and Jeff?

This is what Browns Nation waited for the last several months? Outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo and cornerback Leon McFadden is all they could come up with? A definite disappointment.

Not that I expected the club to come away with a couple of future Pro Bowlers, but my goodness, what a letdown.

It’s as though Joe Banner, Mike Lombardi, Ray Farmer and Rob Chudzinski sat on their hands for the better part of two days, staring longingly at their draft board, while the rest of the NFL feasted on all that talent.

During the second round, I kept waiting to hear Rich Eisen on the NFL Network or Trey Wingo on ESPN declare there’s a trade involving the Cleveland Browns.

Surely, Banner would try to recoup the second-round pick the Browns lost when they selected Josh Gordon in last summer’s supplemental draft. There were three deals in the round, but not a peep from Cleveland.

Maybe he tried. I don’t know. If so, he didn’t try hard enough.

One explanation we might hear out of the Browns’ relative non-participation in rounds two and three is that “Gordon is our second-round pick.” It’s a spin that will be bought by sycophantic Browns fans.

Sorry, that doesn’t wash. It’s nothing more than rationale.

By the time the Browns finally were placed on the clock at the top of the third round, most of the good players, those not quite good enough to receive first-round grades, were gone.

One can only guess there wasn’t anyone they deemed worthy enough of trading back into the second round.

A lot of second-rounders who were chosen could have filled a critical need for the Browns. Players like tight ends Zach Ernst and Gavin Escobar, inside linebackers Kevin Minter and Jon Bostic, guard Brian Winters from Kent State and cornerbacks Jamar Taylor, Johnathan Banks and David Amerson were there for the taking.

The club needs help in all those areas. And the best they could come up with in Friday’s exercise was McFadden, who can’t reach five-foot, 10 inches on a good day.

This is the guy the club wants to play opposite Joe Haden in the Cleveland secondary. After passing on the larger and more experienced Dee Milliner in the first round, a lot of hope and pressure is going to be unduly placed on McFadden, who was given a fifth-round grade by Mike Mayock of the NFL Network.

Known for his feistiness, probably to overcome his lack of ideal height, McFadden is way too small to compete against some of the AFC North’s large wideouts.

I find it hard to believe that Banner, with all his connections, could not find a willing trade partner. The best they could do was a deal for veteran Miami wide receiver Davone Bess that also involved swapping mid- and late-round draft picks. It’s appears to be insurance pending the recovery of free-agent signee David Nelson from ACL surgery.

Wonder what Norv Turner is thinking. Throughout his NFL career as a coordinator and head coach, he has always benefited from terrific tight ends. He was smart enough to build offenses around them.

Right now, the tight ends on the Cleveland roster are Jordan Cameron, Gary Barnidge, Kellen Davis, Dan Gronkowski and Brad Smelley. Based on that group, it looks very much as though Turner is going to dramatically change his philosophy and run the offense through another more talented group.

Ray Horton, his counterpart on defense, must have whispered more than sweet nothings in Banner’s ear considering the direction the club took in rounds one and three.

The two defensive selections are puzzling. Chudzinski is an offensive-minded coach. Unless he’s dumb, deaf and blind, he has to know the Cleveland offense needs some serious help.

Banner and his merry men have five picks in the final four rounds Saturday: No. 111 in the fourth, No. 164 in the fifth, No. 175 in the sixth and Nos. 217 and 227 in the seventh.

Given what we’ve seen the first two days, it’s hard to believe the Browns will be able to fill targeted needs with what’s left. Panning for those final-day gems will not be easy.

This is where the men are separated from the boys, the knowledgeable selectors from those who use darts.

Given what we’ve seen from the first two sessions, it’s hard to be optimistic about the direction this new regime is taking the club.

The overall grade after two days: C- verging on a D. 

No, not again

Murphy’s Law paid another visit to the Browns Thursday night.

Yep, that grand old resident of Loserville knocked on the Browns’ door in the first round of the National Football League college draft and Joe Banner & Co. couldn’t resist. They answered.

Grabbed outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo to further enhance their goal of making life miserable for NFL quarterbacks this season.

As if they didn’t have enough pass rushers already in free agents Paul Kruger, Desmond Bryant and Quentin Groves. Add converted defensive end Jabaal Sheard to that corps and now you have a gang of quarterback abusers.

It’s official. The club now has a logjam at situational edge pass rushers. Only problem is how to get them all on the field at the same time.

Coach Rob Chudzinski believes he has the answer: “Adding (Mingo) in the mix gives us another pass rusher and a solid rotation. . . .  You can’t have enough pass rushers and keeping these guys fresh is the key.”

They key word here is rotation. The Browns drafted a player with their first-round pick who will be in a rotation. And they plunked down $44 million for Kruger, who will be in a rotation. Talk about not getting bang for your buck.

Beefing up the pass rush is all well and good, but the last time I looked, there are other facets of defense that need to be addressed. Like stopping the run.

Mingo is not a run stopper. Neither are Kruger or Groves. They are all situational players. Guys who do one thing well. But that’s it.

Sheard, on the other hand, is the unknown quantity. We don’t know whether he can make the successful transition to a new position.

I have a problem – and so should Browns coaches – with players who are one-dimensional. When drafting a defensive player as high as No. 6, you should look for someone who can play three downs.

Mingo is not a three-down player. He is a quick-twitch, high motor guy who does only one thing well. At No. 6, that’s not enough. Not nearly enough.

New defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who apparently lobbied a lot harder for his side of the ball in the first round than did offensive coordinator Norv Turner, is a pressure guy.

Banner made it absolutely clear, too, in the run-up to the lottery. The Browns were going to make harassment of quarterbacks a priority. Give him credit, albeit grudgingly. He held true to that promise with the selection of the newest candidate for the Browns’ Name Hall of Fame. (Fair Hooker, Jubilee Dunbar, Thane Gash, Ben Gay, Earthwind Moreland, Syndric Steptoe and Cleveland Pittsburgh Crosby are already in.)

Only problem with that is Banner lost sight of the fact the Browns needed more immediate help on offense. The defense didn’t play that badly last season. The offense was far more inconsistent.

Banner, a long-time advocate of trench warfare, had the opportunity to bulk up his offensive line at No 6. Instead of locking in on guards Chance Warmack or Jonathan Cooper, guys who never leave the field, he opted for one who probably will never be a three-down performer.

The Browns have a screaming need for guards. They have 60% of what could be an outstanding offensive line and had a chance to substantially elevate that percentage. Instead, Banner fell in love with Mingo’s athleticism. Unfortunately, Mingo is a better athlete than he is a football player.

Jarvis Jones, the University of Georgia linebacker taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers (who know how to draft) with the 17th pick, is a football player. He is a playmaker with the stats to back it up.

Horton’s biggest challenge now will be getting all these duplicate position players enough playing time. They will be, essentially, part-time performers.

I realize situational substitution is still the rage among NFL defensive coordinators, but this is getting ridiculous. These guys are going to be bumping into each other as they trot on and off the field.

Mingo’s selection came with mixed reviews.

“I love this pick,” gushed ESPN’s Jon Gruden.

Pete Prisco of CBS Sports: “Mingo has raw ability, but I just didn’t see enough from him last season. I wanted more. And do the Browns have a need there?” How loudly can you say NO? Grade: C-

Sports Illustrated: “Mingo is seen as a great athletic talent, but he’s a project more prized for his upside. However he has the potential to be a devastating pass rusher at the next level. A curious selection, though, for a team that fielded a fairly stout defense in 2012 and is still littered with issues at each level on offense.” Grade: 8.10

SB Nation: “Before free agency, a pick like Mingo would have been a slam dunk A+ for the Browns. But after giving Paul Kruger a sizable contract in free agency and having Jabaal Sheard, there are only so many snaps to go around. . . . The Browns will have to find a way to get enough plays for Mingo, Kruger and Sheard.” Grade: B “A really aggressive decision by Cleveland to . . . take Mingo higher than a lot of people had him pegged. The Browns may not be able to play him three downs from the get-go, but his sack totals ought to easily surpass what he did at LSU (4½) in 2012.” Grade: B+

And this harsh assessment from the Web site Walter Football: “I guess 2012 tape doesn’t matter for the Browns. Barkevious Mingo was awful this past season and flat-out quit in some games. (He) doesn’t even fill a real need unless Jabaal Sheard is dealt, which is confusing in itself because Sheard was one of the top defenders for the Browns last year.” Grade: C-

Right now, Mingo and Sheard are projects, the latter because of the position switch. Mingo will not be able to step right in and be a valuable contributor. Someone like cornerback Dee Milliner would have made more sense. At least he is a three-down player.

The New York Jets, who picked up Milliner three picks after Cleveland passed on him, should send the Browns a note of thanks for allowing them to select Darrelle Revis’ successor in their secondary.

Of course there are still six more rounds to go and anything can happen. Let’s see if Banner and his minions can recover from their first-round misfire in the next couple of days.

For right now, though, the best grade I can give the Mingo selection is a C. And that’s being generous.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

After all the hoopla, a quiet first round

So many questions as we approach the National Football League college football draft Thursday night.

So many possibilities.

So many probabilities.

So many different directions and scenarios.

Just about anything can happen in the first five picks that will determine what the Browns will do when called on the clock for pick No 6.

Or not.

And that’s what makes this lottery one of the most anticipated and fascinating annual events of not only the NFL season, but the entire sports world.

The National Basketball Association does not have nearly the run-up to its draft that the NFL enjoys. The Major League Baseball draft? Are you kidding me? The National Hockley League? The WNBA? Get serious.

Nope. Nothing touches the NFL draft.

OK, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s dive into some of the possibilities and probabilities as we inch closer to that moment Thursday around 9 p.m. when Commissioner Roger Goodell says, “The Cleveland Browns are on the clock.”

By then, Browns Nation will have temporarily placed the Jimmy Haslam III-FBI situation on the back burner. First things first.

So . . .

Are the Browns shopping Jabaal Sheard and/or Ahtyba Rubin, seeking to recover the second-round pick they forfeited when they selected Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft last summer?

Or are they going to stand pat, hoping to retrieve that selection by trading down?

What is going through the mind right now of Joe Banner? Never mind Mike Lombardi, Ray Farmer or Rob Chudzinski. Banner is running this draft like a martinet.

Sure, he’ll lean on the advice of the aforementioned trio, but the CEO is the triggerman. He’s the guy who will make the final decision. In true Harry Truman fashion, the buck stops at his desk.

History says Banner most likely will not make that first-round pick at No. 6. Seven times, while running the show in Philadelphia, he swapped out of the club’s initial first-round selection. And rumors persist he will make that eight by Thursday night.

Right now, a majority of the draft gurus says Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner will be the Browns’ choice if they stay at six. But Milliner recently underwent shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum and might miss a significant part of training camp and the exhibition season.

Now take into consideration that Milliner might not be on the board for the Browns. The Detroit Lions, who pick right in front of the Browns, need a lot of help in the secondary.

And the San Francisco 49ers, who own pick No. 31, are rumored to be frothing for the chance to get Milliner and might be willing to part with a whole bunch of their 13 picks to move up and get him.

Maybe someone else, say the New York Jets, who own picks nine and 13, might be able to offer more in an effort to get Milliner to replace the recently departed Darrelle Revis to Tampa Bay.

And who will try to trade up – as high as No. 6, maybe – in an effort to land one of the three top offensive tackle prospects? Miami is a possibility at No. 12. But the Dolphins are trying to trade for Kansas City’s Branden Albert. If they fail, a move up is a definite possibility.

Now factor in another team seeking an offensive lineman. San Diego, sitting at No. 11, just might be willing to part with a second-round choice in order to swap places with the Browns.

So many factors involved with the top 10 selections.

Another possibility: Because of a dearth of skill position players in the early going, this is considered, at best, an average draft in terms of quality. It’s deep, but not loaded with impact players. And most of the talent lies on the defensive side of the ball.

The Browns need help at guard (actually both guards) and tight end on offense and outside linebacker, cornerback and free safety on defense. And there are enough players at those positions available outside the top 10 who can come in and help right away.

Barring unforeseen surprises, the likes of Ziggy Ansah, Chance Warmack, Jarvis Jones, Star Lotulelei, Jonathan Cooper, Tavon Austin, Kenny Vaccaro, Tyler Eifert, Xavier Rhodes, Geno Smith and Barkevious Mingo should still be on the board at six.

Smith is the wild card. Generally acknowledged as the best of a mediocre quarterback lot, he nevertheless is projected as a distinct possibility of being drafted in the first half of the first round.

In his mock draft, the estimable and indefatigable Peter King of Sports Illustrated believes the Browns will select Smith with the 11th pick after swapping places with San Diego (correcting an earlier version that indicated a trade with Miami) in a deal that could land them that precious second-round pick.

Also thought to be high on the Browns’ draft board is Oregon hybrid defensive lineman/outside linebacker Dion Jordan. However, if he and Milliner are gone by pick six, the likelihood of a trade down increases.

But if – and there are a lot of but ifs in this draft – a couple of teams trade up in the hunt for offensive linemen, then Milliner drops to where the Browns are slated to make their first selection.

So what do the Browns do when Goodell places them on the clock in about 48 hours? Whom does Banner pick? And from what draft position does he make that pick?

Damned if I know. Not even Banner knows what he’s going to do. And he won’t until that clock starts.

If I had to guess, nothing is going to happen. How often do we see all kinds of trade rumors precede the actual draft and then all remains quiet on the draft front? Smoke screens have a way of doing that.

The first five teams will make their picks amid rumors of trades, none of which will eventuate. And then it’ll be the Browns’ turn. Banner will turn down any deals that do not involve a second-rounder this year or first-rounder next year. He won’t get one.

He stays put and does the smart thing and strengthens the side of the ball that needs it the most.  That would be the offense.

The Cleveland offense last season lacked the kind of a running game that scared opposing teams. Why? Mainly because the offensive line was slightly above average. The tackles are set. So is center. The team needs at least one stick out guard. And there will one available at No. 6.

In all the pre-draft hoopla, we have rarely heard Chance Warmack’s name. He’s just the kind of guy who will help Trent Richardson, his college buddy at Alabama, get to that next level. The elite level. His nasty approach to the game is exactly what the Browns need in the trenches. And he’ll be there at six.

Place him next to Joe Thomas on the left side, move John Greco to right guard and watch the Browns’ offense substantially improve.

You don’t often see a guard drafted so high. Not much value on an interior lineman is the reasoning. But plug Warmack into this line, give Brandon Weeden a strong running game, then sit back and watch the Browns’ time of possession rise dramatically.

Yes, the NFL has become a quarterback-driven league. But you still need to maintain offensive balance and a strong running game helps.

In less than 48 hours, we’ll get a much better read on what we can look forward to for the next several years.

It’s Banner time.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Fred Astaire had nothing on these guys

Here we are less than a week until National Football League college draft weekend and we have no more idea of what the Browns are going to do in the annual lottery than we did four months ago.

After club CEO Joe Banner and General Manager Mike Lombardi conducted the annual pre-draft get together with the media Thursday, we gleaned very little – no, make that nothing – as they tap-danced their way around just about every question.

These guys should have been politicians the way they deftly non-answered the media’s queries. No matter how many different ways some of the questions were couched, the answers remained the same.

Banner let his guard down only once, but it was not draft related. And he was remarkably candid.

Asked whether the club felt pressure from the fans to win now, he replied, “There is a lot of pressure, mostly self-imposed frankly, for us to be successful.” Normally when someone says frankly in an answer, I get suspicious. It’s as though he’s trying to sound genuine.

He continued. “What we are trying really hard to do is resist the temptation of doing something quickly and not being able to sustain it. That versus trying to have some degree of patience.

“I think you’ve seen us both be patient, but also active and build it the right way. So we have a chance to not sneak into the playoffs once and then go backwards, but build a team that should be sustainable and has the right strengths to compete against the best teams in the league.”

In other words, he’s not looking for the quick fix, as opposed to building slowly and sustaining what he expects to be significant progress from season to season. He does not want the Browns to be a one-season wonder.

As for the current off-the-field distraction, a.k.a. Jimmy Haslam III vs. the government, Banner adroitly avoided stepping anywhere near that minefield, so it shouldn’t interfere with the fans’ fun next week.  

Other that that, the only piece of information they conceded was assigning first-round grades to 18-20 players. All of which means there is a strong likelihood they will trade out of the sixth slot in the first round in an effort to pick up extra selections.

It wouldn’t surprise if Banner and Lombardi trade down more than once in the opening round, stockpiling even more picks, if they believe they can still be in position to draft someone they have targeted.

And when it’s all over Saturday evening, you can bet  they will pronounce themselves extremely satisfied with their work. That, of course, is what all teams do. (Sarcasm alert!) The post-draft manual requires it. (End sarcasm alert!)

So unless Banner and Lombardi do something extremely bizarre, like selecting someone far higher than most experts project, a large majority of the fans then will begin a love affair with the new Brownies. Never forget, though, that this club has drafted the likes of Mike Junkin, David Veikune and Brian Robiskie in the first two rounds of the draft.

How much worse than most of their predecessors can Banner and Lombardi be? They have to be pretty bad to be compared to Dwight Clark, Butch Davis, Phil Savage and Eric Mangini. Not including Tom Heckert Jr. with this group since he experienced a modicum of success in his two seasons in Cleveland.

Then again, as someone once said: Ya never know.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Another black cloud over Cleveland

What in the world did Cleveland do to deserve such rotten luck with owners of their professional sports teams?

The Indians have the Dolan family, whose penurious ways have led to nothing but mediocrity for the better part of the last decade.

Then there’s Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, whose famous temper has created a schism between him and LeBron James that might prevent James from returning in the future. OK, that last part is a bit pie-in-the-sky, but the department of you never know has come up with a few surprises.

Suffice it to say, though, the Cavs have not gotten any better since James departed three years ago. Gilbert, it appears, has surrounded himself with the wrong people.

And now comes word that new Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III is in big trouble with the federal government. Seems that Haslam's other company, Pilot Flying J, has been accused of engaging in fraudulent business practices for many years.

The FBI, which raided Pilot Flying J headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn., earlier this week, does not throw the word “fraud” around loosely. Certainly not when it produced a 120-page affidavit to a search warrant.

This is serious stuff.

Now I don’t know to pretend to know exactly what’s going on down there in Knoxville. In fact, I really don’t understand it.

But when the FBI arrives and points serious fingers of accusation at someone, I do know they don’t do it because it’s a slow day at the office. The smoke-fire relationship is definitely in play here. Haslam has denied all charges and most probably will fight the government’s allegations.

The owner has apologized to the City of Cleveland and fans of his team for what is a lot more than a small inconvenience. It reflects poorly on the football team.

To be more specific, it’s downright embarrassing and casts a large shadow over the man many fans had hoped would finally end the lethargy that has embraced this franchise since it was resurrected in 1999.

Even with the National Football League college draft a week away, most thoughts are not whom the Browns are going to draft. The much bigger story is whether Haslam is a criminal.

We don’t know that. Yet. And until due process is played out, withholding judgment might be the best course of action. But the fact it reflects in any way on Cleveland and the Browns sure takes on an aroma that is less than satisfying.

Most of us thought the Browns were on the precipice of turning a corner with this fresh blood. Here was Haslam, the polar opposite of Randy Lerner in the personality and visibility department.

He was extremely comfortable stepping onto a much larger stage than he had ever encountered in the business world. Here was this Tennessee billionaire who plunked down one of his billions for the right to do so. Even bought a home in the Cleveland area. He and his wife seem to have made a lot of Cleveland friends along the way.

And now this.

Maybe the Dolan family and Gilbert aren’t so bad after all.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Mad scientist time in Berea

For those of you excited about the Browns moving Jabaal Sheard from defensive end to outside linebacker this season, I have two words for you.

Kenard Lang.

Lang, some of you will recall, was a career defensive end who played to moderate success with the Washington Redskins and Browns. He played there for three seasons (2002-04) in Cleveland’s 4-3 scheme, racking up 20½ sacks.

Then Romeo Crennel arrived in 2005 and brought along his beloved 3-4 defense. Big problem because the Browns were bereft of enough quality linebackers to make the new defense work.

Lang, at 6-3 and 280 pounds was too light to play on the defensive line. So Crennel, rather than have Lang add weight, descended into his laboratory and decided Lang would shed about 25 pounds and become an outside linebacker. Never mind that he had never played the position at any level. He was going to be a linebacker.

The responsibilities of a defensive lineman and linebacker are as different as, well, Crennel and, say, Bill Belichick. It was in New England where Belichick took Tedy Bruschi, a defensive lineman in college, and turned him into a linebacker.

Bruschi was too small (6-1, 247 pounds) to play on the defensive line. So Belichick moved him immediately to linebacker, made him watch for a season, and then beamed with pride as Bruschi went on to enjoy a very successful career with the Patriots, helping them win three Super Bowl championships.

If it could work for Bruschi, why not Lang, was the reasoning. What harm could it do? The Browns needed linebackers at the time – the only ones they could count on were Andra Davis, Matt Stewart, Ben Taylor and Chaun Thompson – and Lang was tagged it.

The grand experiment did not last long when it was apparent Lang had all sorts of problems making the adjustment. Unlike Bruschi, who was given a full season to learn his new position, Lang was force-fed immediately.

He struggled in training camp and the exhibition games. At the age of 30, he was being remade. Whether he was fighting the change or just couldn’t make his body do what was expected of him, it was an abysmal failure. It was the classic old dog/new tricks syndrome.

Well, get ready for round two of another Cleveland Browns grand experiment with Sheard in the starring role this time. Surprise!! Here comes Ray Horton and the return of the 3-4 and the Browns need linebackers.

At 6-2 and 255 pounds, it is quite obvious he does not pass the sniff test for a defensive lineman in the Horton’s defense. He is too short and way too light. A 3-4 defensive line is comprised of tackles, most of whom weigh at least 300 pounds.

There is no other position for Sheard, who has 15½ sacks in his first two National Football League seasons, and was drafted expressly to fit Dick Jauron’s 4-3 scheme. He must make the transition this season and he will be force-fed by the Cleveland coaching staff.

But he is instinctively a defensive end. His muscle memory is that of a defensive end. His thought process is that of a defensive end. His entire mind-set is that of a defensive end.

In making the switch, he has to reprogram his brain. His instincts have to be changed. Even if they make him a hybrid (combination pass rusher/outside linebacker), he is still not used to lining up in a two-point stance.

If the Browns are insistent on Sheard making the switch, they’ve got to allow him at least one season to make the necessary adjustments. To throw him immediately into the fire is patently unfair despite what he says.

“A change to a new defense will be difficult because it’s about making adjustments,” Sheard told the Plain Dealer in January. “But I’m an athlete and I can play anywhere at any time . . . I move pretty good at my size now and as long as I can drop back (in coverage), it’s no big deal. If I can play and move, no matter the size, you’re good.”

Wait until he actually plays the new position and finds out he has to cover running backs out of the backfield or tight ends running a drag route. Wait until he finds out he has to play in space when he drops back into assigned zones. Wait until he finds out that linebacker is the polar opposite of defensive end.

Unless he’s an extraordinarily talented athlete who makes transitions easily, he and the Browns will discover that the grand experiment will lack the chemical formula to be successful.

And that’s when the Browns will reach for the telephone, call teams that play the 4-3 and wish Sheard well with his new team. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A re-imaging in progress

The bloodletting continued the other day. A few more members of the Browns last season became former Browns.

Colt McCoy was traded. Chris Gocong and Usama Young were released. In some cases, it was addition by subtraction.

The official count of the pillaging now stands at 14 men gone from last season’s roster. And you can bet there will be a few more before the tourniquet is finally applied.

No longer wearing the Seal Brown and Orange are McCoy, Young, Gocong, Kaluka Maiava, Frostee Rucker, Sheldon Brown, Scott Fujita, Joshua Cribbs, Phil Dawson, Reggie Hodges, Mo Massaquoi, Alex Smith, Juqua Parker and Ray Ventrone.

On the bubble are Brandon Jackson, Owen Marecic, Montario Hardesty, Oneil Cousins. Only one, most likely Hardesty, will survive that group.

A number of marginal players who saw little or no action last season and who, quite frankly, do not fit into the club’s plans for 2013 and beyond, will be gone before training camp starts in July.

This team is not being tinkered with. Joe Banner, Mike Lombardi and Rob Chudzinski are taking a scythe to it. Wisely not touching the roughly 16-man core roster, the trio is slowly but surely re-imaging the product.

It appears as though the second-youngest team in the National Football League last season will become the youngest once all the pieces and parts are in place by the first weekend in September.

Chudzinski promised a quick and aggressive team on both sides of the football. The coach believes the key to winning football is putting as much pressure on the opposition as possible.

Getting rid of some of the veterans (young and old) the club counted on last season almost insures that Browns fans will see a style of football this season unlike any they have witnessed since the resurrection in 1999.

All of which bodes well for the future. That assumes, of course, Banner and Lombardi choose wisely and make shrewd moves during the college draft later this month.

Jettisoning some of the waste (deal with the hyperbole) and generally cleaning up the roster to make way for the newcomers can’t hurt. We’ve seen our share of shakeups and roster reconstructions, anyway. What’s one more?

You never know when one of them is going to be the one that finally points the Browns in the right direction. One of these years, they are bound to get lucky.

Monday, April 1, 2013

We hardly knew ye, Colt

Now that he has been dealt to the San Francisco 49ers, is there any question Colt McCoy has a whole bunch of guardian angels hovering above him?

From the basement to the penthouse just like that.

The Browns get rid of one headache – avoiding the interminable number of why is Colt McCoy still with the Browns stories that were certain to hound us until his eventual departure – with one smooth move.

Why wait? Let’s get this over with now. Kudos to the Browns for removing the mystery with such dispatch.

The 49ers were the perfect partner with whom to do business. They needed a backup to Colin Kaepernick after trading Alex Smith to Kansas City. And they had 14 draft picks with which to play. So it can be assumed that the Browns should thank the Chiefs for making the Smith trade, opening up the opportunity to move McCoy.

It made too much sense. Besides, Joe Banner & Co. had only six picks in the draft later this month. Packaging his sixth-rounder with McCoy, Banner picked up extra picks in the fifth and seventh rounds.

So now, the McCoy bashers most likely will turn their attention to Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell. After all, they need to vent about someone and Thad Lewis will not make the cut.

McCoy, meanwhile, must be wondering if he ever will get a chance to play on a regular basis in the National Football League. Backing up Kaepernick probably means the only action he’ll see is during the exhibition season and mopping up routs in the regular season.

It sure looks as though the baby-faced New Mexican (by way of the University of Texas) was meant to be an NFL backup. But now he has a strong chance to be a backup who sports at least one championship ring.

And who knows? Now that Jim Harbaugh is his head coach, maybe he’ll finally be able to learn more about the quarterback position than he ever did under anyone with the Browns.

McCoy started 21 games in his three painful seasons with the Browns, winning just six. He fell into disfavor with the selection of Weeden in the first round of the draft last season.

The fact the team’s third-round pick in the 2010 draft remained with the club as its No. 2 quarterback all season was surprising. Many believed he would either be released or traded when Weeden was chosen.

He arrived in Cleveland with modest fanfare after Browns President Mike Holmgren personally stepped in and selected him. Many fans were thrilled with the choice since they believe Holmgren is a quarterbacks guru and it would be only a matter of time before McCoy would be the man: The Franchise Quarterback.

He was supposed to be an observer as a rookie, but was forced to step in halfway through the season following injuries to starting quarterback Jake Delhomme and backup Seneca Wallace.

In 24 games with the Browns, McCoy completed 58.3% of his 702 passes for 4,388 yards and 21 touchdowns with 20 interceptions. Lack of a strong arm enabled opposing defenses to successfully squeeze the field on him. They knew he could not complete the staple 15- to 18-yard out most teams have in their arsenal.

That’s when it became obvious his tenure with Cleveland was going to be short lived. He does not fit well in coach Rob Chudzinski's stretch-the-field offense. It was just a matter of time – and timing, as it turned out – before he would wear the colors of another NFL team..

Still, he played the good soldier. Never bad-mouthed the organization. Even though he knew he was not in the team’s future plans, he zipped his lips. He was the ultimate professional in that regard.

He will not be missed by a large majority of Browns fans. His presence in Cleveland served only as fodder for the many arguments that seemed to follow him around.

He won’t have to worry about that in San Francisco.