Sunday, July 31, 2016

One right move, one wrong move

The future-is-now mantra that could have been espoused by the Indians after Saturday night’s attempt to increase their chances of advancing far into the playoffs this season was torpedoed by an unwise decision.

In securing the services of relief pitcher Andrew Miller from the New York Yankees for what amounted to a king’s ransom of highly-touted prospects, Chris Antonetti definitely healed a wound in a bullpen that has performed somewhat unevenly at times.

But in being stubborn with Jonathan Lucroy after conditionally acquiring the Milwaukee Brewers catcher prior to the Miller deal, the Indians’ president played fast and loose with the immediate future of this team.

One of the conditions was Lucroy accepting the deal despite listing the Indians as one of the teams in a no-trade clause in his contract. He reportedly initially told the Tribe he would waive that clause if the club voided his option for next year.

Instead, again reportedly, the Indians declined and furthermore would not guarantee Lucroy he would be the No. 1 catcher next season. And for those reasons, he declined to accept the trade and went back to work with the Brewers.

So instead of securing the services of one of the best catchers in all of baseball for reasons that baffle, the Indians are still stuck with Chris Gimenez and Roberto Perez in the wake of a bad shoulder injury to Yan Gomes. Taking nothing away from Gimenez, Perez or even Gomes, but they are not in the same league talent-wise with Lucroy.

Gomes, while serviceable defensively, has become a zero with a bat in his hands; an out waiting to happen. Lucroy is clearly the much better receiver and definitely a much scarier threat at the plate.

Why the devotion to Gomes? He had one good season in 2014 and hasn’t come even close to duplicating. Sure, he is signed to a favorable contract, but bringing in Lucroy would have been an immediate and sizable upgrade. The Tribe could have peddled Gomes’ contract.

Lucroy is less than a year older than Gomes, so age is not a factor. And Lucroy has a sterling reputation at handling pitching staffs. His 13-homer, 50-RBI season this year is merely a bonus. So are his .284 lifetime batting average and .342 on-base percentage.

Antonetti should have told Lucroy, “Look, don’t worry, we’ll take care of you. We want you here in Cleveland. We’ll tear up that last year and work on a multi-year deal.”

The seven-year veteran could have stepped right in with the terrific Cleveland starting staff, not missed a beat and added another big right-handed bat. Now the Indians have an uncertain future behind the plate.

When a quality catcher like Lucroy becomes available, you make every effort to get him and make sure he sticks around for a long time. Why Antonetti did not assure him he would be taken care of financially beyond next season is another head-scratcher.

And preferring Gomes over him behind the plate on a regular basis? Really? That's taking loyalty a little too far. Losing Lucroy was clearly a blown opportunity to strengthen a position that impacts the entire team.

Miller, meanwhile, is one of the best relief pitchers in all baseball. Great get. No question he will help. He’ll start as one of the setup men for the not-always-reliable Cody Allen, but it won’t be long before manager Terry Francona makes the new acquisition his closer.

Antonetti got it half right with his dealings in the last 24 hours. The opportunity to acquire one of the best catchers in baseball doesn’t come along often. To take a pass is regrettable. It was a missed opportunity to solidify the immediate future and beyond.

And now that the Detroit Tigers are showing signs of life after playing mediocre baseball for most of the season, it appears they are not going away in what could turn out to be a two-team race for the American League Central Division title.

If the Indians somehow manage to blow this, pointing at the deal they failed to pull the trigger on the final weekend of July will be the reason.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

It's going to be Griffin

Browns coach Hue Jackson says he will name his starting quarterback before the first exhibition game against the Green Bay Packers on Aug. 12.

“We have to,” he told the media Thursday on the first day of training camp in Berea. “That’s just the right thing to do.” And he’s absolutely right. It is the right thing to do.

What Jackson did not say, though, was whether it was the starting quarterback for just that exhibition game or the starting quarterback when the Browns open the regular season in Philadelphia on Sept. 11. That needs to be clarified.

“Whoever earns that job is going to earn it here on this field, but we’re going to go through a process here pretty soon,” said Jackson, who cited open competition throughout the roster. “It’s going to show itself quickly and it definitely would be before we play our first pre-season game.”

So why wait until then? Why not now?

This is nothing more than charade because we all know who will get the call. If it isn’t Robert Griffin III, I, for one, will be stunned. I can’t see Josh McCown, Cody Kessler or Austin Davis emerging as the starting quarterback.

McCown is a nice serviceable backup quarterback with the emphasis on backup. Kessler, of course, is a rookie and unless he is the second coming of Andrew Luck, this season will be nothing more than an education for him. Davis will be gone by the time the regular season commences, if not sooner.

Griffin was brought to Cleveland to start, not hold a clipboard. Unless he gets hurt in the run-up to the regular season, he will be in charge of the huddle when the Cleveland offense takes the field against the Eagles.

I can’t figure out why Jackson does not name The Third straight up. What harm would it do? The coaching staff is designing the playbook to fit his unique talents. Even if he screws up during the exhibition season, he will still be in charge of the offense.

McCown is nothing more than a journeyman who sometimes has an occasionally good game. He has started 57 games in his 13-year journey through the National Football League and won 18 of them.

Last season, when healthy, he lined up under center for eight games with the Browns and won once. He is 2-17 in his last two seasons as a starting quarterback.

This is not meant to demean McCown. It’s to point out the stark reality that his best role with any NFL team is as a backup. He is a seasoned veteran who best serves his team as a consultant on the sideline during games.

He very well could be one of those quarterbacks who holds on just long enough to impress some head coach along the way and earns a spot on a coaching staff. At 37, he is still young enough to land somewhere and be helpful.

But if Jackson names him his starting quarterback for the season, the coach’s reputation as a quarterback whisperer will take a hit. I just do not see it happening.

The Third needs to be the linchpin of the attack. Even if he loses games, he still needs to be in there. This will be a season of growth for the Browns. Not much is expected of them.

Jackson, of course, will set his sights high, probably – and unrealistically – too high. But he needs to do so with the right man at the helm. And that man is Robert Griffin III.

Somehow, I think Jackson already knows that, but for some reason prefers to keep it to himself.

Questions seeking answers . . . and still getting them

Picking up on the defense, in particular the secondary. We know there will be two new safeties. So . . .

Any alarm at cornerback?

Uh huh. The biggest question there is whether Joe Haden can play all 16 games. The last time he did that was as a rookie back in 2010, but he started only seven that season. He has never played a full season as a starter – he came close on three occasions with 15 starts. It seems he is an injury waiting to happen.

In his six NFL seasons, he has been sidelined by injuries to his hip, shoulder, foot, ribs, finger and now his head. Last season, it was ankle, finger and concussion issues that forced him to miss 11 games. The Browns need him to stay healthy because he is the closest they have to what amounts to a shutdown cornerback.

The rest of the cornerback lot gives pause for great concern. Veteran Tramon Williams came over from Green Bay last season as a corner with fading talent and proved it time and again. The only reason he wasn’t benched? No one else was better.

The best disappointing second-year man Justin Gilbert could do was replicate his wasted rookie season. Former head coach Mike Pettine’s prize corner, the club’s top pick in the 2014 draft, has been a colossal bust, a spectacular zero.

Now along comes defensive coordinator Ray Horton, a former defensive back, whose main job here is to crawl inside Gilbert’s head and show him what it takes to play solid football on this level. Because he does not know Gilbert yet, expect the youngster to get a fresh start. No preconceived notions.

Haden, who will open training camp on the PUP list, and Tramon Williams are your starters at the corners right now with K’Waun Williams a good bet to nail down the nickel slot. Second-year man Charles Gaines had typical rookie problems, but showed promise as the season wore on last year.

Last season, Cleveland’s corners played an awful lot of man coverage, partly because of experienced safeties and a philosophy that relied heavily on rushing the quarterback. It will be interesting to see how Horton handles this year’s group given the relative inexperience at safety.

Odds on Gilbert becoming a starter, let alone making the club?

If Horton cannot unlock the mystery of why he has severely underperformed, the kid is gone.

What’s the story with special teams?

At least there is some stability somewhere. The only coordinator returning from last season is special teams guru Chris Tabor. Also returning are punter Andy Lee and placekicker Travis Coons.

Lee, who arrived last season as one of the best punters in the National Football League, was not his usual Pro Bowl self. Look for a rebound there.

One would think Coons’ rookie season, when he converted 28 of 32 field-goal attempts and 22 of 24 extra-pointers from 33 yards, is enough to warrant a return. He’ll be challenged by free agent Patrick Murray in training camp and probably win.

Where the club is hurting is the return game now that Travis Benjamin has taken his talents to San Diego. The wide receiver was a constant threat to go all the way every time he touched the football. That will be missed.

Who replaces Benjamin? Raheem Mostert? Gilbert? Marlon Moore? Taylor Gabriel? None pose the kind of threat Benjamin did.

Summing up, where are the greatest strengths and weaknesses on offense?

Unfortunately, there are more of the latter than the former.

It clearly depends on whether the Browns can keep quarterback Robert Griffin III vertical the entire season. With an offensive line that can be best described as questionable, the odds favor Griffin falling far short of that goal, especially with his predilection to run the ball when in trouble.

Coach Hue Jackson might find it difficult to maintain a balanced attack if his team falls so far behind in games that he has no other choice than to throw the football. In that case, Griffin’s lack of accuracy from the pocket could be a problem.

The key is the offensive line. If it cannot pave the way for running backs Duke Johnson Jr. and Isaiah Crowell, the 2016 season will turn out to be a replica of the last two seasons. It’s an absolute must for the Browns to run the ball successfully. Period.

Where are the greatest strengths and weaknesses on defense?

A little different here. There are more strengths than weaknesses. And they all lie in the front seven, an area Horton through the years has exploited successfully. Loading up in that area through the draft makes his job a bit easier.

His aggressive approach to defense was gleaned from his mentor, former Pittsburgh Steelers guru Dick LeBeau. Count on Horton taking advantage of the notion that an attacking defense is a good offense and produces a fan-pleasing style. That aggressiveness will cover up the biggest weakness – the secondary.

If the defense can stop the run, and that is a monstrous if considering the AFC North boasts numerous terrific running backs, if the Browns somehow improve that aspect of the defense, then this could be an enjoyable season.

Time to predict who steps up and becomes the club’s rookies of the year on both sides of the ball.

Wide receiver Corey Coleman from the offense and outside linebacker/defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah from the defense will win those honors.

From all indications, Coleman has impressed the most in pre-season workouts and appears to be the most ready to take his game to the next level. He is a hands catcher with great speed who runs disciplined routes. His biggest hurdle might be learning the entire route tree, something he did not have to learn at Baylor. Dark horse for the honor could be fellow wideout Rashard Higgins, another hands catcher whose college production suggests big things in the NFL.

Ogbah possesses that rare combination of size and quickness. If Horton uses Ogbah’s 6-4, 275-pound frame more to rush off the edge than dropping back into coverage or anchoring against the run, Browns fans very well could see the best Cleveland pass rush in nearly a generation. If he plays as well as I believe he will and is utilized all over the field, he could be one of those players who forces the opposition to play “where’s Ogbah”. Dark horse here is, yep, inside linebacker Scooby Wright III.

So how many games do the Browns win his season?

They own the 12th easiest schedule in the NFL this season. However, it is broken up in the most bizarre fashion, which makes it somewhat tougher and belies the statistical formula that rates strength of schedule.

Five of the first seven games are on the road, where the Browns have been awful for 15 of the last 16 seasons. Five of the next six games are at home before wrapping up the season with two of the final three games on the road. Yikes!

With the exception of a trip to Tennessee, they play in the same time zone as Cleveland every week. Nashville is their westernmost trip.

Despite Las Vegas odds, the Browns will not lose every game. Somewhere along the line, you’ve got to figure they will stumble into at least three victories, maybe even the giddy total of four.

This is not a good team. Yet. With most likely the top pick in the next college draft – maybe two of the top 10 choices with Philadelphia’s pick – the future looks bright. Just not the immediate future.

Training camp opens today in Berea. Buckle up and try to enjoy what most likely will be a very bumpy – and rarely enjoyable – ride through the 2016 season.

Hang in there, Browns fans. With Jackson in charge, better things lurk around the corner. Wait’ll next year carries more promise than ever.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

More questions seeking answers . . . and getting them

Continuing with the offense before turning to the defense.

Who figures to be the biggest surprise on offense?

Once coach Hue Jackson sees Duke Johnson Jr. in training camp and exhibition games, expect him to make the second-year man out of Miami of Florida his starting running back. Put simply, Johnson is a playmaker.

Whether it’s in the running game or passing game, the 5-9, 210-pounder has the kind of talent, if handled correctly, that can make a huge difference in the kind of balanced offense Jackson seeks.

With proper coaching, Johnson can become a force in the offense. Last season, he was used – make that misused – far too often as a between-the-tackles runner. He is much more of a slasher, off-tackle, cutback type with quick feet and excellent vision.

Last season, Johnson had 165 touches for 913 yards (534 through the air on 61 catches) and fumbled the ball only once (recovered by the Browns), so ball security is not a concern. Isaiah Crowell can be used to get the tough yards.

Now the defense . . .

Now that Ray Horton has returned as coordinator of this side of the ball, exactly how much autonomy will he get from Jackson, whose expertise is clearly on offense?

It should be complete given how hard Jackson lobbied to get Horton back to Cleveland. But one has to take into consideration that in the one season Horton spent in Cleveland as Rob Chudzinski’s defensive boss in 2013, the Browns allowed 406 points.

Known for his sophisticated blitz packages, Horton at least gave the Browns a decent pass rush that season with 40 sacks. Expect more of the same this season, but he’ll be without defensive ends Desmond Bryant, who ripped a pectoral muscle recently, and Armonty Bryant, who must sit out the first four games for violating the NFL’s drug policy.

So who can the fans expect to see harass opposing quarterbacks this season?

Rookies Carl Nassib, Emmanuel Ogbah and Joe Schobert should factor heavily in Horton’s numerous sub packages in the front seven to bolster the contributions of second-year man Nate Orchard and veteran Paul Kruger. Look for at least 40 sacks this season.

Look also for Horton to involve members of the secondary from time to time in an effort to confuse rival quarterbacks. Well-timed cornerback and safety blitzes, as well as zone blitzes, are Horton staples.

And what about the run defense? It has been embarrassingly awful the past two seasons under Jim O’Neil.

It can’t get any worse. Horton will fix it now that he has a legitimate nose tackle in Danny Shelton.

But Shelton was a huge disappointment last season. What’s the difference?

First off, Shelton has pared about 30 pounds to get down to his playing weight of 335 pounds. Horton’s biggest challenge is to make certain Shelton, extremely quick for a man his size, maintains his new figure.

If he can, Shelton can become what many believed he would be in his rookie season last year: a three-down player. Last season, he was manhandled way too often by opposing linemen 1-on-1. Third down saw him parked on the bench. That can’t happen this season.

If it does, the Browns don’t have enough depth at the position to make it easier on linebackers to make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. Jamie Meder is a nice fill-in at the nose, but he cannot pressure the quarterback like an in-shape Shelton can.

Where do Xavier Cooper and John Hughes fit in?

Depends on how well Nassib and Ogbah perform in training camp. Ogbah, who is listed as a linebacker, has defensive lineman size at 6-4, 275 and could very easily fit in on those rare occasions Horton calls for a 4-3 alignment. And if Nassib puts about 15 more pounds on his 6-7, 275-pound frame, he, too, could find many reps outside.

Cooper and Hughes probably will start the season, but could find themselves in smaller roles if Nassib and Ogbah live up to their advance billing as strong pass rushers.

Looks as though outside linebackers this year will not have as much coverage responsibility as last season. Who benefits?

Definitely Kruger, whose sack production fell last to a paltry 2½ last season because O’Neil preferred him covering running backs and tight ends rather than doing what he does best – beat up on quarterbacks. That will change this season.

Orchard, who saw more playing time in the second half of last season, could surprise with his speed off the flank.

What about Barkevious Mingo?

This clearly will be his make-or-break season with the Browns. The former first-round draft choice has been a spectacular bust in his first three seasons with just seven sacks – none last season – and only 108 total tackles.

On the Cleveland depth chart, Mingo is listed as a starter on the weak side. Speaking of weak, the biggest story at the beginning of every season since he joined the Browns was how weak he was at the point of attack or rushing the quarterback. At 6-4 and a supposed 240 pounds, he was clearly too small to play end in a 3-4 scheme.

He never figured out how to rush the quarterback effectively from linebacker and had a difficult time putting on extra weight. But he reportedly beefed up during the offseason with a nearly 6,000-calorie-a-day regimen and supposedly now weighs in the neighborhood of 250 pounds. All he needs from Horton now is a chance.

What about the inside linebackers?

Gone are Karlos Dansby and Craig Robertson. The Browns will miss Dansby’s size and heady approach to the game. They hope Demario Davis, a starter with the New York Jets the last three seasons, can step in and not miss a beat. The free-agent signee has racked up 313 tackles in that span, 199 solo.

Christian Kirksey, who bounced inside and outside last season, will settle next to Davis. But keep an eye on Scooby Wright III, who might surprise a lot of people. I saw enough of Scooby at the University of Arizona to know he is a special player.

His marvelous instincts for the game enable him to be in the right place at the right time to make plays. An early-season injury last season robbed him of a full season and dropped him to the seventh round of the draft, where the Browns picked him up. The coaches will love him.

A lot of how the inside backers perform this season also will be determined, in large part, by how well the defensive line plays in front of them. Another area of concern for Horton.

The secondary will look a lot different this season. How much of an impact will that have how Horton schemes the season?

A significant one, especially on the inside where the Browns will have two new safeties. Gone at veterans Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson. Whitner excelled at the run game; Gipson was best in the passing game. Both will be missed.

Replacing them will be second-year man Ibraheim Campbell at strong safety and a battle between veterans Jordan Poyer and Rahim Moore will decide who opens at free safety. The lack of starting experience is somewhat alarming.

Any alarm at cornerback?

Check back tomorrow to find out the answer to that and many other questions.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Questions seeking answers . . . and getting them

(Part one of three)

The Browns’ 2016 season officially kicks off Thursday with the opening of training camp in Berea. The opening is accompanied by a long list of questions as a new regime takes command – again – in an effort to restore the kind of prestige this franchise began with when it was born 70 years ago.

In this three-part series, those questions will be raised and answered as we break down what fans can expect.

Perhaps the biggest mystery entering the season for the Browns is new head coach Hue Jackson. So let us begin with him.

What kind of a team can the fans look forward to after so many seasons of inept coaching?

First of all, the Browns in Jackson finally have a head coach who knows what he is doing and whose reputation as a solid National Football League coach is certain to garner respect from the players.

Yes, most of his coaching has been as an assistant on this level. But the gravitas he has accumulated over the years will serve him well. The only possible impediment would be front-office interference.

Not saying that will happen, but the journey toward respectability under Jackson requires extreme patience, an attribute the Browns’ hierarchy has shown far too little of in the Jimmy Haslam III era. Suffice it so say, the Browns finally got it right in the head-coaching department. Don’t screw it up.

The Browns will not get off to a good start this season. Bank on it. In fact, it is quite probable they once again will bring up the rear of the AFC North. Oddsmakers in Las Vegas have embarrassingly made them underdogs in every game this season. That, however, does not mean they will be winless.

What Jackson brings to this franchise now is a fresh look, a fresh attitude and a fresh outlook on the game. The current roster will not translate into many victories at first, but the groundwork the coach constructs in the first season will have a positive effect on the future.

He will not let his players get down on themselves. He knows how to win and, unless I miss by guess, will eventually instill that attribute in them. He will get off to the slow start, in large part, because of a relative paucity of talent on the roster

The front office went for quantity over quality in the last college lottery in hopes of getting lucky. Sashi Brown & Co. threw 14 darts at the draft board and if as many as half of them pan out, that’s a good start. And they’ve got the right man in Jackson to get them started.

Don’t pay too much attention to how the season starts – five of the first seven games are on the road – as to how it finishes. Ever since the resurrection in 1999, the Browns have logged just one season with a winning road record (2002, when they were 6-2 away from home).

Outside of that season, they are 31-97 (a winning percentage of .242) when they travel. They are 7-33 in the last five years, racking up a 1-7 mark in four of those seasons. But I digress.

Use the game-to-game improvement this season as a barometer of the direction in which this team is headed. Judge the Browns by how they finish the season rather than how they begin it.

Now then, on to other questions with shorter answers.

Who will be the opening-day starter at quarterback?

Barring any unforeseen problems, it will be Robert Griffin III. No matter how he plays in training camp or exhibition games, he will be the man with Josh McCown and rookie Cody Kessler backing him up.

Why? Because it has to be that way. The Browns brought him in in hopes he can recapture the brilliance of his rookie season with the Washington Redskins. Unless he gets hurt, which to be truthful is a distinct possibility given his history of injuries, he will be under center or in pistol or shotgun formation against Philadelphia.

So what kind of an offense can the fans expect?

One that is far more balanced than last season’s, when nearly two-thirds of the plays were passes. Jackson’s offenses are much more successful when the ground game complements the passing game or vice-versa. The likely run-pass ratio will be more 51-49 this season.

But won’t that be difficult with an offensive line that will feature new starters at center and right tackle? And won’t Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz be missed?

Yes and yes. Yes, it will be difficult and yes, Mack and Schwartz, lost in free agency, will be missed. It will be hard to run the ball with only 60% of the starters returning. But the Browns had problems moving the ball last season infantry style when relatively healthy.

An awful lot of the line’s success this season depends on whether first-round pick Cameron Erving’s switch to the pivot is successful. He played soft last season when injuries hit both guards. Center is supposed to be his best position. It better be.

The Browns drafted Shon Coleman and Spencer Drango, a couple of large interior linemen, in hopes one will be able to fill the hole left by Schwartz, arguably the Browns’ best lineman last season. The return to health of left guard Joel Bitonio, who missed a significant portion of last season, will help.

Turning to the wide receivers, now that Josh Gordon has been conditionally reinstated from his one-year banishment, where does he fit into Jackson’s scheme?

Two thoughts: Even though he will be allowed to participate in training camp and exhibition games, he still must sit out the first four games of the season because of more current violations.

And how long has it been since he has played a real game of football? And I don’t mean exhibition games, where the speed and quickness of the game is not nearly as fast and quick as it is in the regular season. There is no guarantee he will step right back in and play as though he had never been away for more than a year.

How does Gordon’s return impact the very young, very inexperienced receiving corps and what kind of struggles can we expect from them?

Gordon’s return definitely takes some of the pressure off the four rookies taken in the last draft and reunites him with Griffin, his teammate at Baylor. That is a plus. Provided, of course, the veteran receiver – he is still just 25 years old – stays clean.

Jackson and his offensive staff still will pin their hopes on rookies Corey Coleman, Jordan Payton, Ricardo Louis and Rashard Higgins. Figure at least two of them will become vital contributors. From all reports, Coleman has starter potential with speed and good hands, while Higgins and Payton were productive in college.

Expect them to struggle at first in their transition to the NFL, but that is to be expected for a position that has proven most difficult to master quickly for rookies in the adjustment process.

What about Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, Darius Jennings, Marlon Moore and Terrelle Pryor? Where do those veterans stand?

At least two of them, maybe more now that Gordon is back, will not make the final roster. The most vulnerable are Jennings, Moore and Hawkins, who has had numerous concussions. Pryor’s size gives him an edge.

Tight end Gary Barnidge turned in a Pro Bowl type season last year with 79 receptions for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns. What are the chances he duplicates those numbers this season?

Slim to none, although he will play a big role in Jackson’s attack. The new coach loves to throw to the tight end – look at the great season Tyler Eifert had last season in Cincinnati with Jackson as his coordinator – and will do well.

But the wide receivers will play a bigger role in the Cleveland offense this season than last year, thus limiting the number of targets Barnidge logs this season (he had 123 last season). Expect him to be a favorite target, though, in the red zone.

Part two tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

More Cavs karma with Tribe?

What  . . . you thought the Indians would remain unbeaten the rest of the season? OK, through the All-Star break next week?

The way they have played the game of baseball lately, it’s no wonder you might have thought that way until the Toronto Blue Jays sent them into a two-game skid last weekend.

Is there any question that one of the terrific stories in Major League Baseball this season is what the Indians have accomplished thus far this season? It is arguably the best story. Yes, even better than the one the Chicago Cubs are crafting. 

Why? The Cubs were expected to ravage the National League Central Division with solid pitching and firepower from a young team and have not disappointed.

Entering this season, the Indians had only two things going for them: pitching and above-average defense. Those two attributes, some would agree, is good enough to compete. Good enough to maybe hang around for a while.

There is an old saying in football: Offense wins games; defense wins championships. Same in baseball. Offense wins games; pitching and defense wins championships.

So when the Tribe combined those two attributes and reeled off a club-record 14-game winning streak, the baseball world took notice.

The streak began coincidentally two days before the Cavaliers won the National Basketball Association championship, stunning the pro basketball world and making history along the way, by knocking off the Golden State Warriors after falling behind, 3-1, in games.

It seems as though the winning fever has wafted next door from Quicken Loans Arena to Progressive Field and enabled the Indians to make a little history of their own.

Could we be witnessing another Cavaliers karma situation as Cleveland continues its rebound from being the sports world’s punching bag? First the Cavs and now the Indians? What’s next, an AFC North title for the Browns?

What in the world is going on in Cleveland?

Everything seemed to click for the Tribe during the streak. The pitching, from the starting rotation to the bullpen was even better than expected. The offense, not exactly the scariest in the American League, delivered clutch hit after clutch hit.

When you go up and down this lineup, no one is considered a dangerous threat. There is occasional power with Mike Napoli, Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor. And yet, everyone has contributed in some way or another throughout the streak.

As Blue Jays announcer Dan Shulman said on a telecast the other day, “The Indians’ lineup is such a 1-to-9 group. It’s all about keeping the line moving.” There are no real soft spots.

It is such a versatile lineup for Tribe manager Terry Francona, the best skipper in the American League. And he knows precisely how to handle it, maneuver it to his advantage.

With players like Juan Uribe, Rajai Davis and Jose Ramirez – it’s anyone’s guess where they’ll be in the lineup or where they’ll be in the field – Francona moves players around nimbly in that lineup and still attains a satisfactory result.

No one in his right mind would have expected the Indians to separate themselves from the rest of the American League Central Division by July 4, a date traditionally linked with post-season appearances.

And the club is doing all this without perhaps their best player in outfielder Michael Brantley, whose season has been virtually aborted by a shoulder injury that refuses to heal.

This team has no most valuable player. It is impossible to point your finger at one man and declare he is the MVP. Too bad there isn’t an MVP award for a team because if there were, this Indians team would more than qualify to win it. It is truly a team in the strictest definition of the word.

But if you put a gun to my head and make me choose one, right now I’d have to say Ramirez is the Tribe’s MVP. Why? Because even though you can’t write an every-day position next to his name in the lineup, he makes valuable contributions no matter where he plays. All you know is he will be in that lineup. You just don’t know where.

His batting average has hovered at or around .300 all season. He hits with occasional power, steals bases and plays nearly flawless defense no matter where he starts.

His ability to play at least six different positions allows Francona to rest some of his regulars on occasion and gives him the flexibility to move other pieces and parts in and out of the daily lineup with no reduction in effectiveness.

The switch-hitting Ramirez, still just 23 years old, can play any of the outfield positions and every infield position except first base and plays them all well.

You never know from game to game who is going to step up. There is really no soft spot in the lineup, no matter whom Francona writes on his lineup card. It is truly unique in that regard.

One day, it could be Napoli or Santana with a power display. Or rookie center fielder Tyler Naquin, whose ability with the glove has been matched by his surprising offense.

Davis has been terrific as the leadoff hitter, showing surprising pop and even more surprising speed – 22 stolen bases at the age of 35. Converted third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall has swung a hot bat lately.

Lindor has taken his place as one of baseball’s best young shortstops. Comparisons to Omar Vizquel defensively are beginning to surface, but his solid bat elevates him over the ex-Cleveland shortstop.

About the only position that has not been a major contributor offensively is catcher, but the work of Yan Gomes and Chris Gimenez with this pitching staff more than makes up for that problem.

The starting pitching has been nothing short of sensational with Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin consistently working into the seventh inning and beyond. And it’s a starting staff contractually bound to the club for a few more years.

The versatility luxury on offense allows Francona to operate with a 13-man pitching staff, including an eight-man bullpen. The only weakness there is a paucity of left-handers among the group. Newly recalled left T. J. House is the only portsider on the staff.

After watching this team in spring training, I believed it would be difficult to rise above mediocrity, even with the pitching, and envisioned a record not much above .500, especially with Brantley sidelined. Talk about overachieving.

With a record of 50-32, the American League’s best road record, a 6½-game lead in the AL Central entering the second half of the season and arguably the best pitching staff in the league, no wonder thoughts of a second Cleveland championship this year are understandably dancing around in the fans’ minds.