Monday, June 20, 2016

True confessions, Cleveland style

Confession time . . .

When the Cavaliers took on the Golden State Warriors for the NBA championship Sunday night in Oakland, skepticism ruled my every thought.

No way were the Cavs going to knock off the defending champions, especially on their home court. After coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the series to tie it at 3-3, it would be just another big buildup leading to an even bigger letdown for Cleveland sports fans.

After all, no team had ever come back from being down 3-1 to win an NBA title. Might as well get used to coming close only to fall short. Been that way for damn near 52 years.

Many Cleveland sports fans can rattle off the litany of failures with little or no trouble. Who can forget The Drive, The Shot, The Fumble, Jose Mesa choking in the 1997 World Series?

Forget the Browns’ championship in the 1964 National Football League championship game. That was seemingly eons ago and not remembered by a large portion of fans who follow Cleveland sports, many of whom had not yet been born.

For whatever reason, Cleveland seemingly was not meant to win a major sports championship ever again. Coming close does not count. And that is why I knew the Warriors were going to blow up Cleveland’s latest attempt at sports glory.

I steeled myself against the disappointment that was certain to come. Prepared myself mentally to deal with yet another frustrating moment in Cleveland sports history.

So what would it be this time? Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson going wild for the Warriors, raining three-pointers from just about everywhere? Draymond Green playing the game of his life? 

These were the Golden State Warriors, the history-busting 73-9 Golden State Warriors, the invincible Golden State Warriors. 

So what else portended a loss? LeBron James finally wearing down? Kyrie Irving suddenly losing the magic touch that enabled the Cavaliers to square the series? A sudden collapse of a defense instrumental in the comeback? What would it be this time?

My mind-set entering the game assured that no matter what happened, it could be dealt with. I was emotionally prepared for the Cavs to lose. Much easier to handle a loss that way. That’s what 52 years of frustration can do.

So when the teams went at it Sunday night like a couple of heavyweight boxers trying to knock the hell out of each other, I felt good. At least the Cavs weren’t being blown off the court. Even when they fell behind early by as many as eight points, they somehow found another gear to battle back.

At one point, it seemed as though Green was the Warriors’ only offense, hitting on just about every shot while Curry and Thompson were being effectively neutered by the Cleveland defense.

The Cavs’ offense, meanwhile, hit on only one of its first 14 three-pointers, a sure sign that would ultimately prove the club’s downfall.

But a calmness, a refusal to panic, a stoic resolve to not let this one get away seemed to silently pervade the Cavaliers’ psyche. And yet, one just knew that somehow, some way this one was going to slip away, anyway.

Isn’t that the Cleveland way? The Drive, The Shot, The Fumble, Jose Mesa . . . what now?

That calm, which James numerous times mentioned following the game, paid off with a 93-89 victory in a game that undoubtedly will go down in the annals of Cleveland sports history (hyperbole alert) as the greatest game ever played.

Yes, even greater than the 1964 NFL championship. Even though the Browns shocked the pro football world by shutting out the Baltimore Colts (I was at that game), it was only one game. No playoff games back then. This one was the culmination of a 21-game playoff journey.

And yet when it was over, when there was no doubt the Cavs had triumphed, I found it difficult to openly celebrate even though the curse had been lifted. I felt that same calm James had mentioned. Happy? Indeed. But in a reserved way. Maybe it was the surreal nature of the feeling. It was a feeling I wasn’t used to.

They didn’t lose the big one. Finally. Truly surreal.

Cleveland winning a major sports championship? Really? How does one waiting for 52 years for this night celebrate? James sure knew how in the most human of ways.

When the Cleveland superstar hit the floor on his knees and elbows shortly after at the final horn, buried his face in his hands for what seemed like minutes and allowed a flood of tears to emerge, you knew he connected with every frustrated Cleveland sports fan who had longed for this day.

James’ mission when he returned to his native northeast Ohio two years ago this month was to bring a championship to Cleveland. Finally accomplishing that feat clearly overwhelmed him.

Those were genuine tears of joy, of fulfillment, of accomplishment. He knew exactly what this meant to fans back home. You could see it in his face, hear it in his words. “Cleveland, this is for you!” he joyously and tearfully declared.

It also affected coach Tyronn Lue, who took over this team last Jan. 22 following the surprising firing of David Blatt. As his team celebrated, Lue remained on the bench, hunched over, his face in his hands, his shoulders quivering from weeping. More tears of joy.

And just how did the Cavs win? By refusing to lose (an apt cliché). By displaying a resolve the Warriors had problems handling.

It was Kevin Love, playing stout defense in the finale, grabbing 14 rebounds and making a big difference even though he scored only nine points (he was also +15 while on the floor); it was Irving making clutch shot after clutch shot, including the three-point dagger in the final minute that nailed the outcome.

It was James with another triple double, a statistic that did not include spectacular chase-down blocks of shots by Curry and Andre Iguodala; it was J. R. Smith finally igniting a three-point fusillade in the second half; it was Tristan Thompson hitting on three of four foul shots; it was Richard Jefferson coming off the bench and contributing quality minutes.

It was Lue strategically putting James at what amounted to point forward in game five and letting Irving, a natural point guard, become a shooter, his strongest asset. He basically inverted the offense when both were on the floor. The strategy paid off handsomely. The Warriors could not handle it.

It wasn’t like last year at this time when Golden State took advantage of a physically wounded Cleveland team that played without Irving and Love and still pushed the Warriors to six games, due mainly to the heroic efforts of James, before succumbing.

It was as though James had willed his team to a not-this-year attitude toward the Warriors in this series. And even though the Cavaliers lost three of the first four games, James made certain his team kept the faith, not the ye-of-little-faith stance taken by me and undoubtedly many others.

When I was fortunate enough to work in Cleveland radio for 22 years, one of my favorite topics (usually once a year and generally when there was nothing else to discuss with any degree of intelligence) was what Cleveland team would finally break the curse and win a championship?

The Indians were terrible until the 1990s, when they frustratingly failed twice to win a World Series; the Browns knocked on the door several times with Bernie Kosar & Co. in the 1980s but couldn’t knock it down thanks to John Elway; and the Cavs came close on a few occasions in the Lenny Wilkens’ coaching era, but ran into Michael Jordan.

The topic engendered many telephone calls, often times wall-to-wall for three straight hours. It was a fun topic that enabled fans to vent their frustration of being a Cleveland sports fan for at least one day.

So now the correct answer to that question can finally be uttered, proudly, after 52 years: The Cleveland Cavaliers.

Cleveland is really Believeland now. No longer a dream. No longer a loser. No longer the Mistake on the Lake. What a great feeling.

OK, Indians and Browns, your turn.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Catching up with the Browns (Part 2)

Again, in no particular order . . .

Browns coach Hue Jackson has made it perfectly clear his team will feature a much more balanced attack this season.

The disproportionate figures from last season more than illustrated why the Browns finished 3-13. For any number of reasons, they became very predictable when they owned the football.

Falling behind early, turning a blind eye to the running game and a lack of overall offensive talent were the main culprits.

The Browns last season put the ball up 61.5% of the time (38 passes a game) and recorded 20 touchdowns through the air. Running the ball 38.5% of the time (24 attempts) produced a measly five TD.

Those who argue there’s nothing wrong with passing a vast majority of the time cite that the National Football League has become a passing league. And they would be correct.

So why not continue in that mode this season? Because Jackson comes from a different school, one that relies as much on the ground game as it does throwing the ball. He more than proved that last season as offensive coordinator in Cincinnati.

The Bengals last season threw the ball 52% of the time, producing 31 touchdowns. The other 48% of the time, they ran the ball with great success, scoring another 18 TD. That’s the ratio the new Cleveland coach is shooting for.

But didn’t Jackson have more talent with which to work with Cincy? You bet he did with the likes of running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, wide receivers A. J. Green, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu and tight end Tyler Eifert, not to mention a pretty good offensive line.

Jackson’s greatest challenge as he takes over the Cleveland offense is maximizing the talent on board. There are no Hills, Bernards, Greens, Sanus, Joneses or Eiferts on the roster. And the offensive line, minus free-agent departees Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz, leaves a whole lot to be desired.

The coach is pinning his hopes on returning running backs Duke Johnson Jr. and Isaiah Crowell, a new quarterback in Robert Griffin III and a wide receivers corps that includes four rookies drafted in Chicago.

Gone are veterans Brian Hartline, Travis Benjamin and Dwayne Bowe. There will be a distinctly new look as newcomers Corey Coleman, Rashard Higgins, Jordan Payton and Ricardo Louis battle in what very well could be the best competition in training camp.

Coleman, the club’s top draft pick, has flashed early with his quickness and speed, but is relatively inexperienced as a route runner, having played in a run-first offense at Baylor. If he quickly picks up the nuances of the route tree, he could very easily become the No. 1 wideout.

After suffering through two seasons of General Manager Ray Farmer’s snubbed-nose approach to wide receivers, it will be refreshing to watch the kids (in addition of veterans Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel and Terrelle Pryor) contribute to the attack.

With the seemingly ageless and uber enthusiastic Al Saunders – he’s 69 going on 55, acting and looking about 15 years younger – as their position coach, the freshman quartet can’t help but improve that aspect of the offense.

But as much as Jackson will be hands-on with the offense, he must also rely as a head coach on the other side of the football to be a contributing factor to the team’s success. That could turn out to be his second-biggest challenge.
*        *        *
In order for the Browns to have any degree of good fortune on offense, the defense must help. It certainly didn’t last season.

As pointed out numerous times throughout the 2015 season and into the offseason, the Browns could not stop the run, extending drives with their ineptitude and keeping the offense tethered frustratingly to the bench.

Opportunity knocked throughout the season, but the Browns failed to answer. They were minus-9 in turnover ratio, intercepting only 11 passes. They dropped opposing quarterbacks only 29 times. Conversely, the offensive line coughed up 53 sacks and that line, as previously noted, is weaker as a result of two departures..

It was obvious during the college draft that creating havoc for opposing quarterbacks was critically important with the selections of Emmanuel Ogbah, Carl Nassib and Joe Schobert to go along with second-year man Nate Orchard.

Ray Horton begins his second stint as defensive boss and you can almost bet the sack total will rise. His aggressive approach to defense, which produced 40 sacks as Rob Chudzinski’s coordinator in 2013, is certain to win favor among the pass-rushing specialists.

The creative Horton is a disciple of Dick LeBeau, which means fans can expect just about anything. That includes a sizable degree of blitzes, including the zone variety, with pressure coming from just about anywhere on the field.

But it must be pointed out the Browns surrendered 128 yards a game on the ground under Horton, the same as the past season. So while stopping the run and harassing opposing quarterbacks will be jobs one and two for the defense, the latter seems to be more realistically possible.

Unlocking the secret to a good run defense should be Horton’s top goal. It is imperative because if the woes continue in that department, the opposition won’t feel the need to throw as much, thus cutting down on the opportunity to compile sacks.
*        *        *
Fans hoping rookie quarterback Cody Kessler shocks everyone and wins the starting job are in for a jolt. Unless The Third and/or Josh McCown suddenly develop serious brain cramps and sore arms, Kessler will begin his National Football League career in learn mode.

Unless he can come into training camp late next month and be the second coming of Russell Wilson, Kessler should get used to running the scout team and becoming a sponge on learning his craft on a much higher level.

Wilson, you probably recall, shocked everyone in the Seattle Seahawks training camp four years ago to not only become a starter as a rookie, but was the linchpin in reversing a trend for what had become a very average franchise.

When Seahawks coach Pete Carroll chose Wilson to start over highly paid free agent Matt Flynn, eyebrows were raised. After all, the smallish Wilson was only a third-round pick and had a lot of growing to do.

Four years later, the Seahawks are 46-18 with Wilson at the helm with four playoff appearances, advancing to two Super Bowls, and a hoisting a Vince Lombardi Trophy. Seattle fans will argue it should have been a pair of Lombardis.

So no, Kessler isn’t Wilson. Yet.

He will have to first get the opportunity and that’s not going to happen with Jackson’s quest to turn The Third into a viable NFL quarterback and McCown versatile enough to handle just about anything the new coach throws at him.

So unless The Third and/or McCown, no strangers to injuries, are unable to complete the season, the only glimpse fans will get of Kessler will be in exhibition games.
*        *        *
Notebook: Gary Barnidge, who turned in a didn’t-see-that-coming season last season, said he would be ready for training camp after undergoing sports hernia surgery recently. You can bet the big tight end, who caught 79 passes for 1,034 yards and nine touchdowns in 2015, will have a big role in the offense again this season. He will be Jackson’s Eifert. . . . Center Cameron Erving said he wants to “be a nasty player” this season. He was anything but last season when he played mostly guard. “It’s time to play ball and get a mean streak,” he said. All well and good. Now he needs to go out and prove it. Free agent Mike Matthews, who does have a mean streak and plays nasty, might have something to say about that. . . . The Matthews-Erving battle and the fight for whoever replaces Schwartz at right tackle should provide some interesting camp fodder. Right now, Alvin Bailey and Austin Pasztor are the favorites with rookies Shon Coleman and Spencer Drango lurking.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Catching up with the Browns (Part 1)

In no particular order as OTAs and minicamps wrap up in Berea . . .

Coach Hue Jackson can huff and puff all he wants, but if Robert Griffin III isn’t the starting quarterback when the Browns open the 2016 season in Philadelphia the second Sunday in September, consider me shocked, stunned and otherwise totally baffled.

Unless The Third is unable to withstand the physical rigors of training camp and exhibition games, he will be the man under center and/or in shotgun formation as the Browns launch the new campaign against the Eagles.

He is unquestionably the best quarterback on the team, which is not exactly a ringing endorsement for what lies ahead. He is – and it’s not even close – the worst starting quarterback in the AFC North.

But still, he is Jackson’s best bet to prove to the Las Vegas betting cartel that the Browns this season won’t be as awful as they believe. As bad as they have been since the resurrection in 1999, Vegas thinks the Browns will be worse this season, casting them embarrassingly as underdogs in every game.

Jackson and his offensive staff are in the midst of molding The Third into a West Coast style quarterback, a style he is slow in grasping. Perhaps that is why Jackson has proclaimed an open competition for the starting job. He is not about to reward an unknown quantity.

The Third, however, is clearly the best athlete among the five quarterbacks and smart enough to successfully glom onto the new offense and fend off the likes of Josh McCown, Austin Davis, Connor Shaw and rookie Cody Kessler.

The only question is who backs him up. McCown, the best of the rest, is the likely clipboard holder with Kessler a dark horse to usurp him. Davis and Shaw most likely will be looking to join another National Football League team.
*        *       *
Jackson has been a pleasant revelation to the Cleveland media with his upbeat attitude and positive approach. He is the kind of head coach this franchise has needed for a long, long time.

It is now incumbent on the front office to take a hands-off approach with Jackson no matter how the club does his season. It probably won’t be pretty after 16 games, but victories and losses won’t be the most important aspect.

What Jimmy Haslam III and his henchmen should watch for is how the club improves as the season unfolds. Watch to see if the same mistakes are not being made. Dote on the progress being made. Take note of how the Browns play in the second half of the season as opposed to the first half.

Patience is a virtue the Haslam regime has not practiced. The owner finally has a good coach. He should keep his hands to himself and instruct Sashi Brown to do the same. It might take another year or two, but this club is finally headed in the right direction.
*        *       *
There is no question Justin Gilbert has been a supreme bust since being the Browns’ top draft pick a couple of years ago. Whatever talent coach Mike Pettine saw to push General Manager Ray Farmer to select the cornerback that high has obviously not manifested itself.

But now there is talk that Gilbert is a new man and the new coaching staff, particularly defensive coordinator Ray Horton, is handling him as though he has a clean slate.

Never mind the two awful seasons he spent under Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil. Forget everything he was taught in those campaigns. Wipe that slate clean. This is going to be completely different.

If anyone can uncap the talent well Pettine saw in Gilbert, it is Horton, a former defensive back himself, and secondary coach Louie Cioffi, in his second stint with the Browns.

Playing defense is all about aggression and self-motivation, traits Gilbert has spectacularly failed to display. That will be the greatest challenge for Horton and Cioffi in an effort to provide veteran corner Joe Haden with a quality partner. It bears close scrutiny.
*        *       *
Last season, rookie nose tackle Danny Shelton disappointed because he didn’t do what he was drafted to do: stop the run. He was like a human boulder at 6-2, 335 pounds; someone difficult to run through. But the Browns, yet again, finished near the bottom of the NFL in stopping the opposition on the ground.

Shelton gained weight as the season progressed. He plugged very few holes and failed to protect the inside linebackers, who were forced to make tackles often times well beyond the line of scrimmage.

He was slow and ineffective. He became a two-down lineman after showing he had trouble rushing the quarterback He was not the player the Browns thought they drafted.

This season, again with a new coaching staff and different approach, Shelton is in redemption mode. He pared about 30 pounds (from a high of 365) and is ostensibly a new man. Horton, a 3-4 scheme guy, has the ideal nose tackle in Shelton from a size standpoint and is eager to use him.

The big question remains whether Shelton can elevate his game and perform the way the Browns expected him to last season. If he comes anywhere near the way he played at the University of Washington, where he terrorized (OK, manhandled) quarterbacks and running backs, stopping the run will not be a problem this season.
*        *       *
And finally: The training camp roster breaks sown this way: A staggering 19 defensive backs, 10 defensive linemen (when Carl Nassib signs), 13 linebackers (when Joe Schobert signs), 15 offensive linemen, 11 wide receivers, seven running backs, six tight ends, five quarterbacks, two placekickers, one punter and one long snapper.  Twenty-two are rookies. Another 11 have only one year’s experience. The oldest players are Joe Thomas (31) Tramon Williams (33), Andy Lee (33) and McCown (36).  That list does not include wide receiver Josh Gordon, whose year-long suspension from the NFL because of PED use lingers awaiting a ruling by Commissioner Roger Goodell.

(To be continued)