Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Mayfield’s big test

Hue Jackson has made it abundantly clear that Tyrod Taylor is his starting quarterback.

He all but said Taylor was the quarterback the Browns thought they traded for shortly before the college draft and proved it with his performance in the recently concluded minicamp.

But the Browns’ head coach has a history, at least in his brief tenure in Cleveland, of saying one thing and winding up doing something entirely different.

All you have to do is look back at how he waffled a year ago when he welcomed four quarterbacks to training camp – returnees Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan, veteran Brock Osweiler and rookie draftee DeShone Kizer.

Let’s forget for the moment that none of those quarterbacks are on this season’s roster. At one time or another during the 2017 exhibition season, all but Hogan were given consideration to be No. 1. It started with Kessler, switched to Osweiler and eventually morphed into Kizer, all in a month’s time.

Jackson, the so-called quarterbacks whisperer, unfortunately and unwisely tapped Kizer to lead the team to its embarrassing 0-16 season after Osweiler was cut and Kessler and Hogan didn’t come even close to winning the job.

That is why Taylor is now in Cleveland. His steady, heady and ultra conservative approach to quarterbacking is what the Browns need after winning only once in the last 32 games. At least that is what fans are being led to believe.

The way Jackson states it, it is Taylor’s job to lose. But since No 1 overall draft pick Baker Mayfield is the only legitimate challenger, the likelihood of that happening falls somewhere between “no way” and “of course there’s a chance.”

As much as it’s Taylor’s job to lose, it is also Mayfield’s job to win. And that will be the prevailing main story, especially with the Hard Knocks crew lurking, when training camp begins in earnest late next month in Berea.

Right now, Mayfield is just out of the National Football League womb. After OTA and minicamp, he is that much smarter, but far, far from being even close to being ready. At this point, that notion is pie in the sky.

Fans have been led to believe that one of the main reasons Mayfield wad the top choice was how tough he was, how competitive he was, how dogged he was, traits the front office believes would eventually translate into winning.

How he comports himself in the next six weeks will go a long way in determining how serious he is about challenging Taylor. If he is the fighter, the competitor, fans can expect a different Mayfield in training camp.

He appears to have gotten the physical part down – operating under center for the first time – and now it’s the mental aspect of the game that needs to be addressed: Calling plays in the huddle, memorizing the playbook, identifying defenses, recognizing weaknesses in the opposition’s defense.

Mayfield’s learning curve in college was quick enough that he twice went from walk-on to starter. The question now is can he make that same leap in transitioning to the much tougher and challenging professional game?

It would be a mistake if Taylor enters the training camp phase of the season confidently assuming he will have the huddle when the Browns open the 2018 season against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

A lot will depend on how quickly Mayfield grasps Todd Haley’s offense to the point where he will make Jackson take notice. It would be reminiscent of what Russell Wilson did in Seattle six years ago when he beat out Matt Flynn for the starting job.

The big difference now is whether Jackson and Haley give Mayfield a genuine opportunity to duplicate Wilson’s feat and supplant Taylor. That is what remains to be seen.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

LeBron can’t lose no matter what he does

Now that LeBron James and the Cavaliers have been dispatched rather handily by the Golden State Warriors, let the crazy offseason begin.

Let the nonsensical, bizarre, crazy rumors of whose uniform LeBron will wear next season take over interest in the National Basketball Association {along with the college draft) for the next month or so.

It’s not exactly a Where In The World Is Carmen San Diego scenario swirling around Planet LeBron. The fascination, however, has elicited numerous scenarios, replete with semi-reasoned thoughts, as to his next destination.

It conjured up the situation following the 2013-14 season when the world’s greatest basketball player took his talents to Miami. The speculation was crazy then. It’s even crazier now.

(Full disclosure: Back then, I did not take his departure well. I believed he turned his back on his home area. Yes, he was from Akron, but he was a Clevelander through and through. I railed and had no regrets doing so.)

Now it is different. Completely different.

LeBron has become an iconic figure, one of the few celebrities in the world recognized by just his first name. When he returned to Cleveland four years ago, he made a promise.

In leading the Cavaliers to four straight championship series and by winning the whole thing in 2016, he kept that promise. And it was easy to see that title was the most meaningful of the three he has helped win. More so than the two he won with the Heat.

He did his damndest to make it three, but lack of a quality supporting cast and an outstanding Golden State Warriors team in those four seasons made it impossible.

The immediate future of the Cavaliers is such that even if LeBron surprises everyone and chooses to remain with Cleveland, a fifth straight trip to the finals is a long shot at best.

He is chasing a legacy named Michael Jordan. Despite setting records that will be difficult to break along the way in his 15-year career, he is only halfway to Jordan’s six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls.

Unfortunately, that is the standard, fairly or unfairly, by which many people compare the two great players. Jordan is still considered the greatest of all time and LeBron is the chaser.

He is still young enough at 33 and healthy enough to achieve his goal of at least tying Jordan. For the first time in his career, he played all 82 games in the regular season, 104 overall.

In order to accomplish that goal, he needs the right team, the right atmosphere, the right culture. At this point in his career, he deserves that. He cannot get it in Cleveland.

And that is why my reaction when he leaves this time will be decidedly different. It will be with a greater understanding that while his heart will always be in northeast Ohio, his talent belongs elsewhere.

Swirling rumors have him landing in Los Angeles with the Lakers, Houston, San Antonio, Philadelphia, Boston and, yes, Cleveland.

The only way he would follow though on his avowed desire to retire with the Cavaliers is to place family above professional ambitions. His wife’s family lives in the Akron area.

Then again, he owns two homes in the Los Angeles area and one of the unsubstantiated rumors making the rounds says he has enrolled his two sons in a school in the tony Brentwood area of Los Angeles.

LeBron the entrepreneur has also dipped his talents in the motion picture industry and television production and what better place to further that career than Los Angeles.

Other speculation has LeBron winding up in Houston as the final piece of the puzzle as the Rockets inch closer to knocking off the Warriors. Hard to believe there are enough basketballs for LeBron, James Harden and Chris Paul.

Another rumor speculates LeBron recruiting Paul and Paul George to join him with the young Lakers club, much like he did with Chris Bosh joining Dwyane Wade in Miami.

One of the numerous Boston rumors has Kyrie Irving possibly returning to the Cavaliers with LeBron going to the Celtics in a sign-and-trade to join up with the terrific young studs on the that roster.

And 76ers center Joel Embiid has lobbied long and hard to join him and his highly improved young mates in Philadelphia.

As for San Antonio, playing for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich would hold the greatest appeal. LeBron has been an outspoken admirer of Popovich for many seasons.

After the final game of the season Friday night, LeBron said he has “no idea at this point” what he will do. “I’ll consider my family,” he said. “Sitting down and considering everything, but my family is a huge part of what I’ll do. I don’t have an answer for you right now.”

That answer most likely will arrive within the next month, probably after the Cavaliers make the eighth pick of the draft, not knowing what he’ll do.

That’s okay. At this point, he is more than entitled to go wherever he wants and play for whomever he wants. He has earned that entitlement.

After 15 seasons, he deserves to be happy. If that means moving away a second time, so be it. He still will always be the greatest Cavalier. This time, there will be no quarreling from this corner.


Thursday, June 7, 2018

Haley’s challenge

One of the most interesting storylines that will be closely watched during training camp involves the offense as the Browns prepare for the 2018 National Football League season.

Todd Haley, the club’s new offensive coordinator, has been charged with the responsibility of awakening a running attack that has been semi comatose at best for the last few years.

And while he won’t have the luxury of calling on Le’Veon Bell to bail him out as he has with the Pittsburgh Steelers the last five seasons, he will benefit from the best corps of running backs the Browns have fielded in a long time.

Now that Duke Johnson Jr. is in the fold ($15.6 million over three years for those who need to know the figures), it will be interesting to see how Haley parcels out touches for Carlos Hyde, Nick Chubb and Johnson.

The challenge will be to keep all three happy and, at the same time, productive enough to make life easier for whoever has the huddle.

Even though the NFL has become a quarterback-driven league, old school purists (like me) still believe a successful ground game sets up the passing game. And with someone like Johnson now securely in his holster, Haley has all sorts of options he can use.

In Pittsburgh, Bell was the Swiss army knife. He did it all – he is a greet runner, catches the football out of the backfield and blocks. The Todd Haley playbook with the Steelers was simple. It won’t be that easy with Cleveland, but at least he has the horses.

Each of his three players has a particular talent that should engender enough touches to satisfy each man. Hyde and Chubb are grinders who can churn out the tough yards, although Hyde showed last season he can also be counted on in the passing game.

Chubb is the X-factor in that aspect of the offense, having played in an attack at the University of Georgia that featured the run game. Haley most likely will try to find out quickly whether the rookie draft pick has soft hands when the football is airborne.

Johnson, meanwhile, has established himself as one of the best pass-catching running backs in the league since arriving in 2015. He came out of Miami of Florida three years ago with the reputation of being a workhorse – he rushed for 1,652 yards in his final season with the Hurricanes – and displayed good hands almost immediately.

When you have a running back who averages 6.7 yards a touch, as Johnson produced last season, you find a way to get him the ball as many times as possible in a game. His 74 receptions last season led the team, more than the total of the next two receivers.

The solution to Haley’s possible conundrum with some much talent at the position probably will be situational. Down and distance will be a factor in a lot of the coordinator’s plans, as will how much he sees Johnson’s continued worth in the passing game.

It can’t be stated strongly enough that Johnson’s skill set poses a large problem to opposing defenses, especially when he flanks either out wide or in the slot. And his ability to run well after the catch makes him that much more dangerous.

Hyde probably will open up as the starter unless Chubb has a sensational training camp and exhibition season. Whoever gets the call initially, though, can expect solid support off the bench and be well rested when called on.

With so much talent at his disposal, it’s pretty safe to say the Cleveland ground game this season under Haley all but insures the club will not scrape the bottom of the 32-team league in points scored as it has the last two seasons under Hue Jackson.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

More news & views

News: The Browns sign free-agent linebacker Mychal Kendricks to a one-year contract and release veteran linebacker Tank Carder.

Views: The improved Cleveland defense just got that much better.

The one area on that side of the football that had talent to begin with but lacked quality depth was linebacker and the Kendricks signing more than took care of that.

He joins rookie draft pick Genard Avery and James Burgess Jr., who filled in nicely when Jamie Collins went down with a season-ending injury early in the 2017 campaign, to give the Browns strength at that position.

The versatility of the six-year veteran is what prompts that notion. He can play anywhere no matter what defensive coordinator Gregg Williams schemes. The possibilities abound

Need a run stop in a 4-3 alignment, Kendricks is your man at the Mike backer. Need someone to cover a tight end or running back on a pass pattern, ditto, whether it’s on the strong side or weak side. Rush the passer, no problem.

Coach Hue Jackson said Kendricks will start off in the middle, but most likely won’t stay there for long in Williams’ scheme-heavy defense. He probably will be hard to locate from down to down due to his versatility.

“I’m here to do whatever is asked of me,” Kendricks said, “and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.  As long as I’m on the field, I’m going to make stuff happen. I promise.” Music to a defensive coordinator’s ears

So where does that leave Joe Schobert, who is coming off a Pro Bowl season at middle linebacker, playing every snap? With Kendricks’ arrival, the chances of duplicating that feat are slim.

He has better football instincts and is a stronger tackler than Schobert, who made many of his 144 tackles last season beyond the line of scrimmage. It wouldn’t surprise if Williams on occasion ines Schobert up as a pass rusher, where he excelled in college.

He came out of Wisconsin after a 9½-sack season with the Badgers and the Browns played him outside as a rookie before moving him inside, where he surprised everyone with his production last season.

Christian Kirksey, a young veteran, joins the versatility brigade, having played inside for a couple of seasons before switching outside last season.

Kendricks, who chose the Browns over the Minnesota Vikings and Oakland Raiders, brings along a winning mentality to the Browns, whose relationship with winning football has nosedived the last two seasons under Jackson.

“This is my first day here,” he said after Tuesday’s OTA session in Berea. “One thing I know is I will bring intensity, passion, a love for the game, a skill set I hope will showcase itself and leadership.”

Carder’s value was on special teams and his departure is no big loss. General Manager John Dorsey has recruited and/or drafted enough younger players to make the veteran expendable.

News: The Philadelphia Eagles were disinvited to the White House Tuesday for a celebration of their Super Bowl victory.

Views: Nothing here. Moving on . . .

News: Rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield is promoted to second team quarterback as the OTA winds down.

Views: Jackson called it nothing more than “mixing it up” and “tinkering” after the workout. “There’s nothing behind it. . . . There’s nothing to it," he said.  Nobody should read into it.”

He was quick to assert Tyrod Taylor is still his starting quarterback. “He goes with the ones all the time,” he said. “We’re bringing Baker along. We’re teaching him the National Football League.”

And that, at least right now, is the way it should be. As much as fans would like to believe Mayfield is firmly ensconced behind Taylor with hopes of overtaking him, that’s not going to happen. Yet.

It’s way too early for such speculation. In fact, it’s way too early to take anything that has transpired in the OTA thus far too seriously. That will happen soon enough with minicamp, training camp and the exhibition season.

That’s when the many questions that face this team will be answered. Until then, speculate at your own peril.