Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Stranger things have happened

First, it was the Browns drafting Johnny Manziel in early May.

Then LeBron James decided earlier this month he had been away long enough and chose to return home and rejoin the Cavaliers.

Cleveland, the city where bad luck seems to have taken up permanent residence, is on an extremely positive sports roll as improbable as that seems.

With that in mind, the belief in that roll could be furthered if the National Football League determines Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon will not be suspended indefinitely for violation of the league’s substance abuse policy.

That’s a big if, of course, but the way the Cleveland sports scene has been kissed recently by good fortune, anything is possible.

Gordon and his agent have hired two prominent attorneys to plead his case to the NFL. Where the league lands depends on whether those barristers can find flaws in either the administration of – or subsequent conclusions to – his drug tests.

If you believe in karma (and Cleveland sports seem to have it at least for the time being), don’t rule out the distinct possibility, as opposed to the distinct probability, that Gordon’s punishment will be at least reduced if not tossed.

How deaf, dumb and blind the league is in this matter will be the determining factor. In light of the embarrassing length of the Ray Rice suspension – talk about sending the wrong message – for slugging his then-fiancĂ©e and now wife, this one can go either way.

Coming so closely on the heels of the Rice verdict just might have an effect on how the league falls in the Gordon matter. The PR fallout in the Rice suspension has the league in scrambling and defense mode.

If Gordon comes out of this relatively clean and plays at least half the 2014 season, that previously mentioned Cleveland roll gains new momentum. At that point, it’s anyone’s guess where that will lead. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Too early to judge

Calm down, everyone.

OK, maybe not everyone. But those of you who live and die with everything being done and accomplished at the Browns’ training camp, here’s a caveat – relax.

Do not read anything into what you see because what you see and what the coaching staff sees are quite likely diametrically the opposite. Videotape is the great equalizer.

Don’t judge a player for every dropped pass. Or every fumble. Or every blocking mistake committed by an offensive lineman. Or every dropped interception or blown coverage. Or just about anything that doesn’t work.

This is what training camp for. It is not for determining who wins or loses a particular battle early on. It’s for taking those mistakes, which come in bunches in the first week or two, and minimizing them, if not totally eliminating them.

The battles will be won mostly in the four exhibition games, those games where the opposition won’t be a teammate, where pads are worn, where the speed of the game ramps up.

Football, as most sports, is a game where mistakes inevitably are made. The teams that keep those mistakes at a minimum usually wind up with winning records. It’s the great separator.

Individual battles are not won on a daily basis. In the next week or two, Brian Hoyer will have his good days and his bad days. Same with Johnny Manziel. Be careful not to read anything into those performances.

It is foolish to take these ups and downs and determine who leads the competition for the starting job under center. Coaches look for consistency from all players and that is what will determine who wins jobs.

Don’t get too excited (or dispirited if you’re a Hoyer fan) if Manziel hooks up with, say, Miles Austin on a bomb. Conversely, Manziel’s boosters shouldn’t get too hopeful because a stupid interception is only a play away.

When making the final determination of who starts at quarterback, coaches consider many factors, including game management, throwing to the correct receiver, making certain blocking assignments are properly communicated, making the proper defensive reads, commanding the huddle and getting the ball out in time.

If you’re a true Browns fan, you are rooting for both quarterbacks. The better they are, the more difficult the decision becomes for the coaches. And that’s not bad. What you root for is for the coaches to make the wisest choice.

If both players perform well, it’s a win-win situation for the coaches and the team. If neither performs well, then the problems begin. I don’t see that happening, though.

By the time the regular season begins on Sept. 7, the coaches will know which quarterback gives them the best chance to win. If it’s Hoyer, you can bet the experience Manziel receives adequately prepares him to provide proper relief if necessary.

As for the other positional battles, do not judge based on what you see on a particular day. That could change in a hurry as different packages on both sides of the ball are installed on a daily basis.  The veterans adjust quicker.

The early stages of training camp are mostly about challenging the players and installing the new systems. Throw different situations at them and see how they react. For the first couple of weeks at least, no need to jump to conclusions.

It’s way too early to handicap. Save that for at least another few weeks.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Questions and answers

With Browns training camp launch less than 24 hours away, time for questions seeking answers with most of the answers provided.

What will be the camp’s most interesting and watched competition?

That one’s easy. If you don’t know the answer to that one, you’re in the wrong place. Of course it’s the battle at quarterback between Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel. Which begs the next question.

What are Manziel’s chances of winning the job and being under center Sept. 7 in Pittsburgh?

Better than you might think even though coach Mike Pettine wants Hoyer to win the job, which means he will give the incumbent every opportunity to do so. If Manziel (never Johnny Football or any other Johnny reference here) is all that has been advertised, however, don’t be surprised to see him start the season opener.

How will that happen?

New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is savvy enough and flexible enough to tailor part of his offense to cater to Manziel’s unusual improvisational skills whenever the rookie is under center. He has designed plays specifically for him, ones Hoyer cannot execute.

So how can Hoyer overcome that?

By playing well in his time on the field. And in practice. He’ll get half the first exhibition game, half the second and about three quarters of the third. If he does well, Manziel holds the clipboard in Pittsburgh. It’s Hoyer’s job to lose more than it is Manziel’s to win.

Are three exhibition games enough to determine who starts at quarterback?

In the National Football League, it is. It’s the only barometer coaches use.

Any other interesting battles to keep an eye on?

Quite a few: Wide receiver, two-fifths of the offensive line, inside linebacker and half the secondary.

With the year-long suspension of Josh Gordon, the Browns are in trouble on the flanks. There are no stickouts unless you consider Nate Burleson or Miles Austin, both of whom are on the downside of their careers.

Unless the likes of Andrew Hawkins, Travis Benjamin, Anthony Armstrong, Charles Johnson and rookie Willie Snead flash, look for a more toned-down Cleveland passing game this season. Especially with an offense geared much more toward the run than last season.

The Browns didn’t run very much last season because they were downright awful. Why the change back to the ground game and who will carry the ball?

Why? Because of the new blocking scheme installed by Shanahan, the zone-blocking scheme, an easier and simpler scheme for the offensive line. It enables the ball carrier more opportunities to make cutback runs.

As for the who, try veteran Ben Tate and rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. All are young, tough, hard-nosed runners built along the same physical lines: 5-10, 5-11, 225 pounds. There is no question the Cleveland running game will be significantly improved this season because it can’t be any worse than last season’s.

So who will be the No. 1 running back?

There’s a good chance there won’t be a No. 1 with at least two, perhaps all three, sharing the load. All are good cutback runners who should work well with the new blocking scheme.

How does the new offensive approach and the lack of quality wideouts affect tight end Jordan Cameron?

Don’t expect another 80-catch, 917-yard, seven-touchdown season. Now that Gordon is out of the picture, look for opponents to pay close attention to Cameron. Much more attention.

That brings us to the offensive line. What are the problems there?

The offensive line has two big question marks: Left guard and right guard. The tackles and center are set. Second-round pick Joel Bitonio and veteran John Greco are the early favorites to win starting jobs. Watch out for Garret Gilkey and Paul McQuistan.

We know about the new run-blocking scheme. What about the pass blocking?

Now that could be a problem. Perennial Pro Bowler Joe Thomas showed cracks in his pass pro armor last season. Mitchell Schwartz, after a slow start, played well. And center Alex Mack had his best season.

What about the other battles?

At inside linebacker, free-agent signee Karlos Dansby is one of the NFL’s best. But he’s 32, an age considered by some to be a crossroads, and played next to the solid Daryl Washington in Arizona. If he plays as well as he did last season, he is a definite upgrade from the departed D’Qwell Jackson. Rookie Chris Kirksey and Craig Robertson battle to play opposite Dansby.

In the secondary, strong safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Joe Haden are locks at their respective positions. Both play Pro-Bowl caliber football. Top draft pick Justin Gilbert most likely will open opposite Haden at corner with fellow rookie Pierre Desir pressing him. And Tashaun Gipson played well enough at free safety last season to lock down the spot again. Look for Desir to give Buster Skrine a battle for the slot role in the nickel.

So what are the strengths of the defense?

The quality and depth on the defensive line and outside linebacker, and the expected pressure defense by Pettine, the de facto defensive coordinator.  His in-your-face style of defense has Browns fans excited, primarily because they haven’t seen that style in, oh, probably never.

Pettine is a big fan of playing a stifling defense with emphasis on getting opposing quarterbacks on the ground or releasing the ball before they want. That means a lot of blitzing and press coverage on the outside.

How much a role will the outside backers play?

The operative word here is huge, especially against the pass. With Jabaal Sheard slated to line up as a hand-on-the-ground defensive end more this season, that gives Pettine much more latitude to employ exotic blitzes. And he appears bold enough to employ some of those blitzes featuring members of the secondary.

With a much more pass-rush friendly scheme, we finally will find out about Barkevious Mingo and Paul Kruger, who disappointed last season with only 9½ combined sacks. It will be interesting to see whether Pettine can extract the talent and production fans expected from them last season.

What can fans expect from Pettine, the head coach?

Right now, he’s a blank slate. He seems to be the kind of coach who is straightforward with the media. He doesn’t sugarcoat things. There is no reading between the lines with him.

It will be interesting to see how much of an effect running the defense detracts from his role as the head coach. Some veteran head coaches can handle both chores. Most cannot. Pat Shurmur, for example, tried running the Cleveland offense a few years ago as a head coach and was awful. 

Another reason to harbor hopes Pettine will be successful: He is the son of a coach. Before you minimize that fact, consider that three of the NFL’s top coaches are sons of coaches. That would be Bill Belichick and the Harbaugh brothers, John and Jim.

What problems can Pettine expect to encounter?

The main one will be the circus atmosphere that will envelop training camp beginning Saturday. Because of Manziel, this will be unlike any other camp the Browns have had. The kid is a lightning rod, a magnet, a polarizing figure no matter how the club chooses to look at it.

The TMZ factor kicks in from day one, not to mention daily visits from ESPN, Fox, NBC and CBS. How long they stick around probably depends on how insulated the Browns plan to shelter Manziel. It also depends on how Pettine and his coaching staff handle it. It very well could become a sizable distraction,

It’s hard to imagine Manziel eventually becoming a non-story. No matter what he does, he will placed under the media microscope and Pettine had better be ready to share that microscope with his rookie quarterback.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Love way too costly

Don’t do it, David Griffin.

Resist the urge to trade Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota. Why? Because it would be the wrong move to make.

Sure, Kevin Love would look great in a Cavaliers uniform. LeBron loves Love. And why not?

He’s only 25 years old, arguably one of the best forwards in the National Basketball Association and he’s stuck in Minnesota.

He wants to get out now before his contract expires after the upcoming season. The Timberwolves, who will lose him one way or the other anyway, have placed him on the auction block.

Therein lies the problem. The T-Wolves want too much. Way too much. Way, way, way too much.

They want Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and at least the Cavs’ No. 1 pick next season. Maybe more because Minnesota president/coach Flip Saunders is swallowing greed pills on a daily basis.

Think about it. That’s the last two No. 1 picks in the entire draft the last two years and more. That’s insane.

Griffin must resist. In every way imaginable. He has to stop himself from jumping at the carrot Saunders is dangling.

He’s extremely fortunate LeBron decided to relocate his talents to northeast Ohio. And the thought of Love and LeBron at the forwards is awfully tempting. In fact, it’s intoxicating.

But just as intoxicating is what the club would be like with LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Wiggins on the same roster. And with Bennett streamlining his body, he can’t be any worse than last season.

Giving up the future to satisfy and enrich the present is a trap many general managers fall into in all sports.

It’s not as though Wiggins and Bennett are mere chattel. I would much rather see what they can do in a Cleveland uniform and wait out Saunders.

Turn a deaf ear to him. Let the season begin with Love on his roster. Wait long enough and he’ll get desperate enough to pull the trigger on a deal for far less than what he wants now.

Wait him out and maybe he’ll be unable to move Love anywhere by the end of the season. And even if he does, Love will be a free agent next season and if he still wants to play with LeBron, then Griffin can go out and sign him.

There are times when being shrewd (and patient) pays off. This is one of those times.

LeBron preached patience in his essay announcing his return. “It will be a long process,” he wrote, ”much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that.”

Wait one more year and that patience will be amply rewarded with Wiggins, Bennett and the rest of the roster intact.

It will be worth it.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The unsung hero in LeBron saga

Back then, on July 8, 2010, there was Jim Gray and a national television audience. It was called “The Decision” And removed LeBron James from the Cleveland sports scene.

This time, there were no TV cameras and only the talents of Lee Jenkins, a writer for Sports Illustrated. Call this one “The Homecoming.” James returns home quietly and with dignity.

In Gray, the James camp chose unwisely. In Jenkins, they righted a wrong.
Some wrongs take a long time before being righted.

So who is Lee Jenkins and why was he chosen to announce James’ homecoming the other day? Why Jenkins this time? Why not be as splashy this time?

It all began in 2012 when Jenkins penned the cover story after SI named LeBron the Sportsman of the Year. For that piece, he allowed Jenkins into his world in order to better portray him for the prestigious honor.

It is obvious James trusts him. That, quite probably, is why the James camp couldn’t say yes fast enough when Jenkins approached and suggested a more dignified way to tell the world what James was going to do even though no one purportedly knew at the time what he would do.

The words are definitely James’ in his SI essay. You could almost feel the emotion pouring out. That’s because Jenkins crafted the words beautifully, shaped them perfectly.

It was almost as though you could hear James’ baritone speak the words. You could almost feel his feelings laid bare as he sought to rationalize his return to his home and, at the same time, not hurt fans of the Miami Heat.

Jenkins brilliantly tapped into those feelings, partnered them with the words and the result was one extraordinarily sincere essay. There was no mistaking what and how James felt.

It was class all the way; the complete opposite of that July night in 2010 when James allowed himself to be sucked up into a vortex of flawed thinking.

On the one hand, there’s Jim Gray, who all but prostituted himself in order to be the one to ask The Question that led to the famous “I’m taking my talents to South Beach, to the Miami Heat.”

That set off a visceral firestorm in Cleveland the likes of which hadn’t been seen since that early November day in 1995 when Art Modell announced in Baltimore that he was moving the Browns to that Maryland city.

Feelings were not hurt when James bolted. They were crushed. The love and devotion that embraced him for the first seven seasons of his career evaporated in waves of anger. An owner, acting like a jilted lover, overreacted.

On the other hand, there’s Jenkins, the unsung hero in the Return of LeBron to the place where he belongs. The calming voice in a storm of rumors and innuedndo.

Being a solid journalist, all Jenkins wanted was the story. He didn’t care where James wound up. He wasn’t rooting for Cleveland or Miami. He was rooting for the story.

And when that story became Cleveland, it became even better.

For everyone.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Stepping aside

So many thoughts regarding LeBron James' return home. And they are all summed up -- and written much better than I could ever do -- by someone near and dear to my wife and me. Here are our son Jeff's thoughts as expressed in a yahoo.com piece posted shortly after the big announcement around noon on Friday. They speak volumes. If you haven't read it yet, please enjoy.

I was convinced this is a joke. I still am. This all sounds like the handiwork of an elaborate, incredibly realistic, indescribably evil, completely typical prank on Cleveland. Because if sports taught anything to those of us who grew up in Cleveland, it is that Mr. Murphy wrote his law with our humble city in mind.
Please understand the feeling that this is a hallucination, a dream. That the rumors of LeBron James considering coming back to Cleveland felt like a tease, and that the Cavs clearing cap space to accommodate his max salary was only ratcheting up the eventual disappointment, and that when people gathered last night near James' home, like white smoke was about to emerge from the chimney, it was mindless sheep being led to their emotional slaughter.
They stood there for no reason and every reason. After The Fumble and The Drive. After the Indians' 65-year drought and the Cavs' championshipless history. After the Browns moved to Baltimore and LeBron took his talents to South Beach. After every gut punch, every slice of torment, every reason not to believe, they still stood there, still held out hope, still radiated the spirit imbued in every Cleveland fan by those collective miseries.

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Time heals all wounds, and Cleveland is ready to welcome LeBron James back with open arms. (AP Photo)

Time heals all wounds, and Cleveland is ready to welcome LeBron James back with open arms. (AP Photo)
And that is why LeBron James came home.
He's always had a little god complex in him. The Jesus pose underneath the words declaring everyone a witness. The savior tack now, like he's headed back to finish what he should've done in the first place. The modern sporting machine manufactures individuals into deities, and LeBron isn't merely the king. He is Zeus, god among men, better at what he does than anybody else in sports.
At his altar stands Cleveland, all of it, the jersey burners and the bobblehead smashers and the ones for whom LeBron was a curse word. Sporting loyalty is an exercise in selfishness, and it bends to the whims of what's best. Nobody in the world is more single-handedly capable of bringing Cleveland its first sporting championship since 1964 than LeBron James, and so of course they're welcoming him back. Turning away the Prodigal Son would be wrong.
Because on his jaunt down south, he learned what winning felt like, understood the responsibility of what driving a championship team entailed. He inherits a team with an elite point guard in Kyrie Irving and enough chips to either get Kevin Love or another elite big man to serve as enforcer and protector. On a team stacked with young talent, LeBron – just four years ago a turncoat to the Northeast Ohio area that reared him – comes back the perfect man to nurture it.
Over time, the hate abated. LeBron wasn't a pariah, banished from the area like Art Modell once was. The Decision was a disaster, even if the decision was right. He wanted to win, and Miami presented a far better opportunity than Cleveland. And LeBron James is nothing if not an opportunist. He saw Dwyane Wade's aging body fail in the playoffs. He watched Chris Bosh morph into a stretch 4 instead of the rebounding machine Miami needed. He knew that his time in Miami was up, and if he could inherit an excellent situation in Cleveland, with a brilliant new coach in David Blatt, a remorseful owner in Dan Gilbert and a fan base ready to again embrace him, the time was right.
As the possibility of James' return surfaced, my friends from high school, most of whom still live in Cleveland, started asking if it was real. Maybe. Possibly. Probably not. Nah. The Clevelander in me came out: inherently skeptical and entirely fatalistic about anything good happening to Cleveland sports teams. The heart breaks only so many times before it's unmendable.

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It's a new day in Cleveland as graphic designer Alvin Smith celebrates LeBron's return Friday. (AP Photo)

It's a new day in Cleveland as graphic designer Alvin Smith celebrates LeBron's return Friday. (AP Photo)
LeBron is like a heart replacement, a brand new ticker that infuses Cleveland sports with possibilities. Between him and the Johnny Manziel Circus Currently Playing at a Nightclub Near You, Cleveland sports now has an identity after four wayward years of trying to remember what it once was.
And that's important, because Cleveland truly does derive so much of itself from its sports teams. It's the sort of thing a city never wants to admit about itself – that everything else is so milquetoast sports trumps all – but it's the truth about Cleveland. Cavs games will not be Cavs games; they will be events around which everything else is scheduled, just like the Browns, no matter how woebegone they are.
The economic downturn ravaged Cleveland, stole some of its identity and much of its pride. LeBron came back anyway. And it means so much to the fans glued to Twitter and others who tried to suss out the truth of his destination using mad Pantone skills and more yet who steeled themselves for the ultimate reveal that he would go back to Miami and win a couple more championships there.
Instead, this. Bliss. Elation. Triumph. As bad as The Decision felt, this teems with the sense of right. LeBron James is the right man in the right place at the right time for the right team in the right city.
Earlier in the week, long before LeBron's classy announcement on Sports Illustrated's website even seemed possible, one friend from Detroit email blasted the lone voice of dissent among Clevelanders giddy with the possibility of LeBron 2.0. He wrote: “If LeBron goes back to Cleveland and the fans welcome him back, the city and the fans lose all respect as sports fans and the shame will be passed on for seven generations. I don't care how much losing you've had to endure. He is nothing else but an enemy of Cleveland now. It would be like electing Benedict Arnold to be president.”
To which I, and everyone else from Cleveland, will say: Mr. Arnold, the presidency is yours. You are no longer an enemy. Losing warps the sense of right and wrong. Championships wash away any and all shame. Welcome back, LeBron. We missed you.
Now, this better not be a joke.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Josh Gordon’s defining moment

Josh Gordon has finally forced the hand of the Browns. After his DWI arrest at 4 in the morning a couple of days ago, the club has no choice. Definitive action must be taken. Now. 

The question is down what road does the club travel to resolve what has turned out to be a gigantic headache.

It’s bad enough the team might lose the services of the All-Pro wide receiver for at least one season to drug abuse violations. The latest incident amounts to piling on.

There seems to be no question that Gordon needs help. His constant partnering trouble has become much more than an annoyance. It has become habitual. He needs help. From himself.

A plea from former teammate D’Qwell Jackson couldn’t have said it any better. Jackson, now with the Indianapolis Colts, tweeted, “If you’re close to Josh Gordon, please help this kid. It’s not about football anymore. It’s about picking up the pieces of his life.”

Jackson is right. This is no longer about football. It’s about life and the choices we make in life that help steer us in the proper direction.

Right now, it would be easy for the Browns to write Gordon off and cut him loose. Nice and clean. He has accumulated more than three strikes. Such a move would be considered understandable.

But if the club still has any interest in keeping him, they need to hire a babysitter. An around-the-clock babysitter. Someone who monitors Gordon’s movements at all times; someone who knows the difference between right and wrong.

If the team's intentions are to make certain this troubled young man does not completely destroy whatever he has amassed thus far, that’s what needs to be done.

There are those who will cry loudly to release Gordon. Cut him pronto. Get rid of him before he further embarrasses, in no particular order, the team, the City of Cleveland, the National Football League and his teammates.

It’s extremely tempting to fall in line with those who believe Gordon playing elsewhere in the NFL is addition by subtraction for the Browns. He should be someone else’s problem, not the Browns’.

One would think that by now, at the age of 23, after already being kicked out of two colleges and running into scrapes with the law, the light would finally go on for him. Instead, it keeps bashing him on the noggin.

There is no question he needs guidance, help, anything to help him find a path in life that will lead him out of the abyss into which he has fallen. Only problem is he doesn’t see it that way.

Judging from reports, Gordon surrounds himself with the wrong people. With enablers who apparently believe his abundant talent protects him from being harmed.

Makes no difference how well he catches passes. Makes no difference how easily he gets open to catch those passes. This young man needs help and he needs it yesterday.

If the Browns have no intention of delivering that help, then by all means release him because keeping him and hoping he will eventually straighten himself out is not going to work.

Gordon has been lectured by those who have already traveled down the wrong path before turning around their careers. It is abundantly apparent those words went in one ear and out the other.

The glory he rightfully received last season is meaningless now. The game of life is played on a much larger stage than the game of football. And it’s painfully obvious he does not realize it.

In his world, doing the wrong thing supersedes football.  It’s almost as though he believes he is entitled. He’s not. For whatever reason, trouble keeps finding him and he doesn’t know how to handle it.

There are defining moments in every person’s life. What happens next very well could be the defining moment in Gordon’s life that will determine where he eventually winds up.

For the Browns’ sake, as well as the young man’s, that direction had better be the correct one.