Monday, March 30, 2015

Getting lucky in more ways than one

The National Football League chickened out with regard to its punishment of Browns General Manager Ray Farmer Monday.

A four-game suspension, to take place the first four weeks of the regular season, and a $250,000 fine is not even a slap on the wrist. It’s a slap on a fingernail.

Bad boy, bad boy, Ray, for texting the bench during games. Naughty, naughty. You knew better even though you were a rookie GM, but just couldn’t help yourself. We’ll let you off this time. You don’t even have to go to a corner and think about what you did. No, this timeout will cost you just the first four games of the season.

It’s official. The NFL is getting soft.

What the league should have done is hit Farmer – and the Browns – where it hurts. Suspend him immediately and restore his active status five weeks from now or the day after the draft, whichever comes first. That would hurt big-time.

The most important part of Farmer’s job is how – and whom – the club drafts and shaping the roster. The lottery is the lifeline of most NFL teams. Farmer, by virtue of his suspension during the regular season, now has the opportunity to plunge forward with his draft plans.

To deny him the ability to formulate those plans is a much more severe punishment than missing the first four games of the regular season. The Browns are also fortunate they didn’t lose a draft choice. And the bonus is Farmer now is free to do his job.

If it were any other GM caught breaking the NFL’s rules, especially those in the club’s division, Browns fans would have screamed bloody murder. 

The club was extremely fortunate this time. But by slapping Farmer's fingernails, the NFL also set a dangerous precedent that will be hard to argue if another general manager tries to do the same thing down the road.

Friday, March 20, 2015

No excitement in free agency

Peggy Lee once asked the musical question, “Is That All There Is?” The same can be asked of the Browns’ front office with regard to how they have handled this season’s free agency.

Is that all there is, Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine, when it comes to improving your team? Do you honestly believe the 2015 Cleveland Browns have been improved with your foray thus far into the free-agent market?

Do you in your heart of hearts think the addition of quarterbacks Josh McCown and Thad Lewis and wide receivers Brian Hartline and Dwayne Bowe will improve your offense? Or that cornerback Tramon Williams and defensive tackle Randy Starks will help the defense?

The only thing you accomplished with those signings is increase the average age of your team. Nothing wrong with signing veterans, but when those veterans are clearly on the downside of their careers, that’s a problem.

The whole idea is to grab young veterans, those in their mid- and late 20s, when they are in their prime and still have several seasons left to make valuable contributions. And there were several of the unrestricted variety out there who could have helped.

Only one problem. It didn’t take long for Farmer and Pettine to find out some of their primary targets preferred to play elsewhere. Or more negatively put, anywhere in the National Football League but Cleveland.

They found that out the hard way when tight end Jordan Cameron, one of their own, shopped the Browns’ offer and found a willing partner in the Miami Dolphins and couldn’t say yes fast enough. The Dolphins will find out soon enough that Jordan is an injury waiting to happen.

And where do fading players who have been released and find out practically nobody wants them wind up? That’s right. Cast your eyes to the shores of Lake Erie. That’s where the team with about $45 million in salary cap space plays.

Of course, the spin doctors at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. trumpet the arrival of the above retreads as though they give hope for the immediate future. Some fans will buy it. The more sophisticated ones know these moves were of the Band-Aid variety and cringe at what lies ahead.

The Browns need truckloads of help on the offensive side of the ball and all the so-called smart folks in Berea could come up with were players who, for the most part, were no longer wanted and dropped from their respective teams.

McCown epitomizes the term journeymen. He is not better than Brian Hoyer. Lewis is training camp fodder. Hartline is, at best, a possession receiver with marginal speed. He’ll be this season’s Miles Austin.

Bowe, who agreed to terms with the Browns to a two-year contract Thursday, is a classic underachiever. He should have thrived the last two seasons in Kansas City in coach Andy Reid’s offense and failed badly. He did not score a touchdown last season and played in every game.

The signing of Williams, who just turned 32, is a clear sign the Browns are not exactly sanguine about the immediate future of Justin Gilbert. Last season’s No. 1 pick in the college draft saw free agent K’Waun Williams take many of his reps last season.

The Green Bay Packers, wanting to get younger in the secondary, released Williams, whose claim to fame is he has started every game in his eight-season career. And most corners begin to fade quickly in their early 30s.

The Browns allowing a much younger Buster Skrine to escape in favor of Williams is a head scratcher. Skrine’s sharp improvement last season helped the Browns’ secondary put up some decent numbers.

The signing of Starks is another puzzler. Yes, the club was last in the NFL last season at stopping the run. But that was because the line, expected to be the strength of the defense, battled injuries all season and did not play one game with the group the club had counted on coming out of training camp.

Starks is an old 31. This will be his 12th NFL season. He brings savvy and not much else. If he survives training camp, he will be nothing more than an occasional contributor.

Last season as a rookie general manager, Farmer was significantly more successful, bagging safety Donte Whitner, linebacker Karlos Dansby, wide receiver Andrew Hawkins and running back Ben Tate.

Whitner and Dansby were vital contributors throughout the season from a playing and locker room presence. Hawkins was the club’s best receiver. Tate was released midway through the season with the emergence of rookies Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West.

Now stop and think about the new free-agent signings, then ask yourself one question: Have the Browns improved themselves enough at this point to at least match last season’s victory total of seven? If the answer is yes, ask another question: Where?

Do you really believe they are improved with maybe the worst starting quarterback in not just the AFC North, the entire AFC, but the entire league? And probably the worst pass receiving corps? Not to mention their best tight end is now in Miami.

Yes, the offensive line is solid on the left side and at center. But the right side is clearly suspect. It is a highly overrated line, especially in pass protection.

If the answer is no, they have not improved themselves, welcome to the land of reality. Only an optimist with tunnelvision sees nothing but a bright future out there for the team in arguably the toughest division in the NFL.

Then factor in that this season, the Browns play the eighth-toughest schedule in the NFL. Last season, they played the sixth easiest, which included the extremely weak NFC South. This season, it’s the extremely tough NFC West.

So by virtue of what Farmer has done in free agency, it is easy to see why conspiracy theorists think the Browns are positioning themselves to once again wind up in the top three in the 2016 college draft when high profile quarterbacks Cardale Jones of Ohio State and Connor Cook of Michigan State are expected to be on the board.

Both are local kids, Jones from Glenville High School and Cook, who played at Walsh Jesuit High School.

Bottom line for the 2015 season: Farmer, who has 10 picks this season, had better have a hellacious draft.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Money unwisely spent

Holy crap, the Browns are paying Josh McCown roughly $5 million a year to mentor their young quarterbacks? What a waste of money if that’s the case.

No, $5 million a year does not buy you a mentor. It buys you a starter. And I don’t for a minute buy into the notion that mentoring means starting games and helping the kids along the way.

The role of mentoring belongs to the quarterbacks coach. He’s a coach. That is part of his job. A starting quarterback has enough problems during a game without concerning himself with sharing his on-the-field experiences. He can share his thoughts maybe the next day, but I wouldn’t call that mentoring.

The role of trying to help Johnny Manziel and Connor Shaw become quality National Football League quarterbacks belongs to new quarterbacks coach Kevin O’Connell just like Dowell Loggains was supposed to do last season.

It wasn’t Brian Hoyer’s job to mentor Manziel and Shaw last season. Some reports last season indicated he wanted nothing to do with that. And who could blame him? He had enough to worry about as a starter. It’s no different with McCown, although he begs to differ.

“If you can give of yourself to others to help somebody else in your journey, I think you’ll find so much more peace in life,” he said in a statement after signing his three-year contract.  “And so that’s my approach when I head into a quarterback room and is just ‘What can I give back to the guys around me to help us be better?' ''

All well and good, but how does that translate into helping Manziel and Shaw develop? The only thing McCown can deliver is 12 seasons of distinctly mediocre quarterbacking. Do as I say, not as I perform.

The newcomer also says he understands how unkindly a certain segment of Browns fans perceive him. “I don’t back off of it or shy away,” he told the Northeast Ohio Media Group. “I understand people’s frustration.

“But my mind-set is to come in here, grow and improve as a football player and help this team win football games. When I’ve been able to operate in a system that’s organized and been around a while like I did in 2013 with the Bears, I’ve been able to play at a high level.” He was 3-2 in relief of the injured Jay Cutler that season and living off that short spurt of success.

A high level for what, five games? That’s five games in 12 seasons. You mean that high a level? Repeating, five games in a dozen seasons.

Other than that, McCown has been a well-traveled journeyman whose results have been abysmally below average. By comparison, Hoyer played at a high level for the Browns for the first five games last season.

So if that’s the barometer by which McCown judges his talent, then the Browns have not only made a mistake by giving this guy around 5 mil a year, they have made a colossal mistake.

What he had in Chicago during that five-game span that he won’t have in Cleveland were wide receivers like Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, a tight end like Martellus Bennett and a running back like Matt Forte. The Browns wish they had talent like that.

Now let’s see what McCown does – and he will because no one is going to beat him out of the starting job unless General Manager Ray Farmer has been holding back and has one more veteran on his radar – with the likes of two running backs in their second season and a wide receivers corps that ranks near the bottom in the NFL.

As for playing at a high level “in a system that’s organized and been around a while,” he certainly didn’t do his homework when it came to the Browns, who are working with their sixth different offensive coordinator in six seasons. Somehow, that little nugget escaped his eyes.

Some critics, including yours truly, believe that using Browns and organized in the same sentence is an oxymoron. The instability factor has resided in Berea for way too long.

It’s time for the Browns to stop making moves such as the one with McCown and really try to become relevant in the NFL for the first time since Marty Schottenheimer was the head coach. Aim and shoot high, not low.

That’s not asking too much, is it?