Monday, December 31, 2007

It Only Hurts When I Smile

I think that maybe the wisest thing ever said about sports came from Heywood Broun, in a column he wrote about the Dempsey v. Carpentier fight in 1921. After witnessing Georges Carpentier's heroic but ultimately futile struggle against the greatest heavyweight of the Jazz Age, Broun wrote that "the tragedy of life is not that man loses, but that he almost wins."

I think that sums up how Browns fans feel this morning. I mean, to have watched the team play so well and come so close, and to see the playoffs slip away... Ouch. Was there anyone watching the Baltimore Colts and Houston Oilers play last night who didn't immediately think about the missed opportunities in the Raiders game, or the Cardinals game or, of course, The Nightmare Before Christmas?

While wallowing in the misery of the Browns near miss is certainly in keeping with tradition, I think I'll take the high road, and try to keep things in perspective. First, nobody, locally or nationally, believed that the Browns were going to win 10 games this season. Hell, I thought that they had a very high risk of starting 1-5. Also, if you told me that Braylon Edwards was going to transform himself from the "mouth that roared" to the "guy who scored," and shatter 40 year old receiving records, I'd have laughed out loud. Sure, guys like Braylon have all of the potential in the world, but we all know that guys like him don't realize their potential playing in Cleveland.

Then there's the biggest surprise of all. If you'd told me before the season that the Browns' QB would be the first alternate for the Pro Bowl, I'd have said "see, I told you that Charlie Frye could play if you put some blockers in front of him." To me, Derek Anderson was a curiosity -- a guy with size 17 feet and a cannon arm, but not somebody I thought they'd turn the reigns over to in lieu of a guy they'd already invested almost two seasons in developing.

I was wrong on both counts. But it looks like I had some company on the Browns' coaching staff, given the farcical QB competition that the team wasted all training camp on, only to dump the winner of that competition after the Pittsburgh fiasco in week one. In addition to making the Browns the laughingstock of the league, the disasterous loss to the Steelers and the sudden ouster of Frye gave me the opportunity to write what, in hindsight, were some of the stupidest posts I've ever written.

How stupid? Well, check out this one and then take a peek at this one. I'll tell you what, it's a darn good thing I'm pretty, or else nobody would read anything I write. Hey, I admit it, I thought the team was pressing the panic button; instead, they were about to prove the truth of the old adage that "Fortune favors the bold."

Anyway, the Browns may have been the league's laughingstock when they offloaded Frye, but the laughing stopped when Anderson started slinging the ball in the direction of Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow, and Joe Jurevicius. When their talents were combined with those of Jamal Lewis, (not to mention some pretty slick offensive schemes from the coaching staff) the Browns had an offense that at times could only be described as fearsome --and when was the last time anything about the Cleveland Browns could be described as "fearsome"?

That offense owed no small measure of its success to what quickly became the best offensive line we've seen in this town since Cody Risen retired. Going into the season, we all knew that the potential was there, thanks to the signing of Eric Steinbach and the selection of the best first round pick chosen since the Browns returned, Joe Thomas.

Still, offensive lines usually take some time to gel, and I thought we really couldn't hope that the line would solidify until after the first month or so of the season. Thankfully, I was wrong about that, too. With Derek Anderson's pocket presence and quick release, and Jamal Lewis's willingness to stick his shoulder down and run people over, the line had everything it needed to get real good, real fast, and the Browns were off to the races on the offensive side of the ball.

The defense, however, was another story, and many of the Browns early season victories looked more like track meets than football games. However, the defense showed some real improvement over the last four weeks of the season, as Shaun Smith (24 of his 62 tackles came in the last month of the season; 15 of them came in the last two weeks) began to emerge as a possible solution at NT, and the secondary began to solidify as players like Brandon McDonald emerged as real talents.

Finally, there were the Browns special teams. What can I say about Josh Cribbs that hasn't already been said? He was simply spectacular. What I like most about Cribbs is that he not only has the ability to run around defenders and score touchdowns, but that he's one of the best kick returners in traffic that I've ever seen. Remember the Baltimore game, where he pushed a pile of Ravens defenders at least 10 yards to take the ball out past the 40 yard line and set up the Browns' game winning scoring drive? When you combine those attributes with an incredible open field tackling ability and total fearlessness, it's just possible that the Cleveland Browns may well have the greatest all-around special teams player in the history of the game on their roster right now.

Then, last but not least, there's Phil Dawson. The last member of the class of 1999 and a team captain, Dawson remains one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history, but Dawson had a rocky year in 2006, and after a few preseason miscues, people were starting to question his future with the club. He proved his worth again this season. Sure, the 51-yard kick against the Ravens will be the one that most people remember because of the bizarre circumstances surrounding it, but to me, the measure of what Phil Dawson means to the Browns will always be the 49 yard field goal that he kicked against Buffalo in the blizzard. I've said it before and I'll say it again -- it is the greatest athletic feat by a kicker that I've ever seen.

I took my family to Rochester, NY to visit relatives last week, but I got everybody up at 5:00 a.m. yesterday to drive back to Cleveland so I would have enough time to get to Browns Stadium in time for the kickoff. Sure, I'm a die hard, but I don't think I'd have made the trip in seasons past. Frankly, that kind of extra effort just wasn't worth it for the teams we've seen in recent years. They didn't give a damn, so why should we?

This team on the other hand, was worth the extra effort. Yesterday, the Browns were saying thank you to fans with their customary giveaways; I got up in the darkness and drove 300 miles to make damn sure I said thank you to them in return.

Thank you, 2007 Cleveland Browns, for bringing the team that we remember back to the lakefront. Thank you for winning, thank you for being thrilling, and thank you for playing hard, every week, win or lose. Thank you for the knots in our stomachs, thank you for the hoarseness in our throats, and thank you the chills down our spines. And most of all, thank you for giving us reasons to believe that the best is yet to come.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Deja Vu All Over Again

It's kind of fitting that the Cleveland Browns playoff fate may hinge on the outcome of tomorrow's game against the Cincinnati Bengals, if only because late season Bengals games have featured prominently in many of Cleveland's playoff chases during seasons past. In fact, tomorrow will mark the seventh (or maybe even the eighth) time that the two teams have met in a December game with big-time playoff implications for the Browns.

The Browns and Bengals first met with the playoffs at stake on December 9, 1972 at Riverfront Stadium. The Browns won that day, but just barely. After the Browns took a 27-24 lead on a 27 yard Don Cockroft field goal with 4:03 remaining, Cincinnati marched to the Cleveland 7 yard line. On second and goal, QB Virgil Carter tried to hit RB Doug Dressler in the end zone, but Browns LB Billy Andrews jumped the route and intercepted Carter's pass, clinching the game for the Browns. Combined with a New York Jets loss to Oakland, Cleveland's victory clinched a playoff berth.

The Browns weren't so fortunate when they met up with the Bengals in similar circumstances a year later. The December 1973 game was again played in Cincinnati, but this time, it was QB Ken Anderson's turn to shine. The Bengals downed the Browns 34-17, on the strength of the Coffee Achiever's three touchdown passes to Isaac Curtis. The loss pretty much ended Cleveland's playoff hopes for that season, and marked the start of the longest post-season drought in the franchise's history.

The Bengals also iced Cleveland's playoff hopes at the end of the 1979 season, once again at Riverfront Stadium. The 3-12 Bengals upset the 9-6 Browns that day by a score of 16 - 12. True to form, Brian Sipe led a last minute drive that brought the Browns to the Bengals five yard line, but a last second pass to Ricky Feacher in the corner of the end zone was deflected, and the Browns were finished.

The news from Riverfront was a lot better the following season, as the Kardiac Kids clinched the 1980 AFC Central title with a typically heart-stopping 27-24 victory over the Bengals. Don Cockroft kicked a 22 yard field goal to give the Browns the lead with 1:25 left in the game, but the Bengals responded with a drive of their own. Starting from their own 32 yard line, the Bengals moved the ball into Browns territory on the strength of Ken Anderson's arm. The Bengals had the ball on the Browns 32 with 11 seconds left to go. Anderson then completed a 20 yard pass to Steve Kreider, but he was tackled in-bounds at the Cleveland 11 yard line as time expired, and the Browns found themselves in the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons.

In 1982, the Browns once again traveled to Riverfront in December needing a win to keep their playoff hopes alive, and once again, the Bengals had their number. The Bengals beat the Browns that day by a score 23-10, thanks in no small part to four Cleveland turnovers (including a Mike Pruitt fumble deep in Cincinnati territory), a bobbled punt snap that gave the Bengals the ball deep in Cleveland territory, and 10 penalties (including a mind boggling four pass interference penalties).

The Browns played their next to last game of the 1986 season against the Bengals, and the game proved to be a a memorable contest for Browns fans, and one of the truly great performances by those nearly-great Browns teams of the late 1980s. Coming into the game, the Browns were 10-4, while the Bengals were 9-5 and coming off an impressive win over the defending AFC champion New England Patriots. The Bengals rolled up 583 yards against the Patriots and went into the game against Cleveland boasting the AFC's top ranked offense.

The Browns went in to the Bengals' house and, to the delight of Cleveland fans, proceeded to beat them like a rented mule. Cleveland set the tone for the 34-3 rout on the first play of the game, when Bernie Kosar hit Reggie Langhorne for a 66 yard gain. Kevin Mack took the ball in for the Browns first touchdown a few plays later. Just to make sure that Cincinnati got the message that the Browns weren't planning on taking any prisoners that day, Marty sent Chip Banks, Clay Matthews and safety Ray Ellis on a blitz on the Bengals' first offensive play. Cincinnati managed a field goal, but then Bernie responded with a 47 yard touchdown strike to Webster Slaughter, and the Browns were off to the races. With the victory, the Browns clinched their second straight AFC Central championship.

Surprisingly, after playing six late season contests on which playoff berths hinged over 14 years, the 1986 game marked the last time that the Browns and Bengals played a December game that mattered. Well, I guess that I should give partial credit to the 1987 game played here in Cleveland. That game is best remembered for one particular play. In the second quarter, Clay Matthews intercepted Boomer Esiason deep in Browns territory, rambled 36 yards, and then lateraled the ball to Carl "Big Daddy" Hairston, who somehow clomped out another 40 yards before collapsing at the Cincinnati 20 yard line.

Despite the comedy, that game actually proved to be a pivotal point in the 1987 season. The Browns entered that game 7-5, and were coming off back to back losses to the 49ers and the Colts. The team's 38-24 win over the Bengals proved to be the first of three straight wins, which enabled the Browns to finish that strike-shortened year with a 10-5 record and clinch home field for the first round of the playoffs.

Whether you count 1987 or not, I think it's fair to say that there is a lot of late season history between the Browns and the Bengals, and almost all of it has been written in Cincinnati. The Browns have a chance to write another page there tomorrow. Here's hoping they use 1986 as their model.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Bring Back The Punt, Pass and Kick Library

The little guy in the white jersey and gold helmet is my youngest son. He's nuts about football, and can't watch a game without asking a million questions about football history. He's always looking for answers to questions like how many championships a particular team has won, what the record is for the longest punt, or the longest field goal, who scored the most touchdowns in a single game, which team had the most points in a game, etc.

Most fans my age know that Tom Dempsey and Jason Elam both kicked 63 yard field goals, that Steve O'Neill of the Jets kicked a 98 yard punt, that Gale Sayers scored six touchdowns against the 49ers in 1965, and that the Bears put up 73 points on the Skins in the 1940 championship game. A big part of the reason that we know this trivia, however, is because of a great series of books that were published for young fans back in the 1960s. This series was published by Random House, and was known as "The Punt, Pass and Kick Library."

There were 23 books in the PPK series, and when I was a kid, I think I read most of them so many times that their spines eventually fell off. I'll bet that many of you did too. The ones that I remember the most are "Championship Teams of the NFL," "Strange But True Football Stories," and "Heroes of the NFL." These books were accessible to kids and fun to read, but they were also good sports books in their own right. They didn't condescend to their readers just because they were aimed at a younger audience. The books were written by first rate sportswriters, including Dave Anderson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his columns in The New York Times.

In light of my son's interest in football, we have been trying to find some good football books to get him for Christmas. Although we were able to find some that were suitable for kids his age, I was disappointed to find that the pickings were a lot slimmer than I remember them being when I was a kid. Sadly, the Punt, Pass and Kick Library has gone the way of the dinosaur, and there just aren't anywhere near as many titles that are either appropriate for younger readers or likely to hold their interest.

That's a shame, because a lot of boys are just like my son. They are fascinated by sports trivia (guys who know their sports rank very high in the playground pecking order), and there's nothing that will make them read for hours on end quite like a book about their favorite sport.

While football remains an overwhelmingly popular spectator sport, not as many kids play organized football as they did in years past. That's a fact that hasn't been lost on the NFL, and it has invested quite a bit of money in its Play Football programs, which are designed to get more kids into the game. One of the things that the NFL hasn't emphasized in that program, however, is sports books for kids. An updated PPK series would do a world of good in terms of feeding the insatiable appetite for football facts that many kids like my son have, while also helping them to learn how much fun reading can actually be.

Monday, December 17, 2007

I'm Still Thawing Out

That wasn't the coldest Browns game that I ever went to, but it may have been the most miserable. I think we'd have actually been better off if the temperature was about 10 degrees colder. That way, the snow and ice that froze to my coat and pants as I walked over to the stadium through the force 8 gale wouldn't have melted 15 minutes after I got to my seat.

According to Dean Vernon Wormer, fat, drunk and stupid is supposedly no way to go through life. I'm in the midst of going through life in exactly that fashion, so check back with me just before I have the big one and I'll let you know whether or not Dean Wormer was right. However, after yesterday's game, I can tell you definitively that cold, damp and sober (I was driving) is no way to go through a Browns game in December.

Despite the discomfort, I wouldn't have traded my seat to yesterday's game for anything. That's what football in December is supposed to be like, isn't it? Just think about how many of the greatest games in NFL history have been played in adverse weather conditions. From 1934's Sneaker Game between the Giants and the Bears, to the 1967 Ice Bowl between the Packers and the Cowboys, to Red Right 88, the Freezer Bowl and, more recently, games like The Brady Blizzard, harsh weather conditions have added drama to late season and playoff matchups.

As far as I'm concerned, Cleveland hosting Buffalo in a late season game that not only matters, but is being played in a blizzard, is just about as good as fandom gets. The 50,000 or so hardy souls who joined me at Browns Stadium yesterday know exactly what I'm talking about. As for the rest of you who bought tickets but wimped out, what can I say? We've been waiting years for meaningful late season home games. If you can't stand a little cold for a team that plays as hard as this one does, why do you buy tickets in the first place?

It is hard to be real analytical when you're freezing your butt off, but here are a few random impressions that I gleaned from yesterday's game.

  • The Browns simply don't win that game without Jamal Lewis. 163 yards rushing under those conditions? Man, that's a running back.

  • The two balls that Braylon Edwards caught in the second quarter would have been spectacular catches if it was 75 degrees and sunny; in a blizzard, they were the stuff of legend.

  • The more I think about Phil Dawson's 49 yard field goal, the more impressed I become. I've seen plenty of longer field goals than that one, but that may be the greatest athletic feat by a kicker that I've ever witnessed. Just before Dawson kicked the ball, the guy standing behind me said "This has got about a 4% chance of being good." I thought he was being optimistic.

  • It was a great day for fat guys. I thought that Shaun Smith played his best game this season, and he, Robaire Smith, Ethan Kelly and Orpheus Roye did a great job stuffing Buffalo's rushing game.

  • Here's a message to Ryan Pontbriand: you were excellent, and we all noticed.

  • Finally, how about some props to the right side of the offensive line? The team has often preferred to run behind Pro Bowler Eric Steinbach and future Pro Bowler Joe Thomas, but yesterday, it was Ryan Tucker and Kevin Shaffer's turn to shine. Almost every big gain that the Browns made on the ground yesterday came over those two guys.

I may have been cold and wet yesterday, but although the conditions were miserable, I misspoke when I said that I was. I had a great time. In fact, about the only negative comment I've got about the game is the fact that despite getting to Browns Stadium 45 minutes before kickoff, I was stuck in the security line and missed the first possession of the game.

Long lines at the gates have been a recurring problem since the Browns introduced additional security screening post-9/11. But since "security" consists of a meaningless pat down by a couple of bored stadium employees, the Browns really need to do a reality check. Do they think they are actually accomplishing anything with this screening other than inconveniencing fans?

People understand the world we live in and the threats we face. I doubt that most people would object to the inconvenience if the security procedures weren't, by any objective standard, a complete joke, and if they were designed to process fans more efficiently. As it is, fans are well aware that the Browns are accomplishing nothing but giving us an illusion of safety at the cost of a substantial amount of inconvenience. Hell, we don't have to go to a Browns game to get that -- we can get that any day of the week just by going to an airport.

If the Browns insist on continuing with this charade, the least they could do is to work to improve the efficiency of their search procedures. Getting into the stadium is a mess, week in and week out. It's especially bad for female fans, who have a limited number of lines that they must use and who often have to wait much longer to be screened than male patrons. There's just got to be a better way than the cattle call approach that the Browns have taken -- and don't tell me to get there earlier. Fans don't want to show up at 11:00 a.m. for a 1:00 p.m. kickoff, and it isn't reasonable for you to ask them to. You have a problem. Fix it.

But enough griping. You know times are a lot better than they have been when my biggest complaint about the Browns game is that I couldn't get to my seat fast enough.

The Cleveland Browns are 9-5, and one Pittsburgh stumble away from sole possession of first place in the AFC North. Who'd a thunk it? Now all I want for Christmas is the Cincinnati Bengals head on a plate. Go get that done, and I'll happily wait in line at the 49ers game.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Say Goodbye to Cooperstown, Say Goodbye My Baby

(With apologies to a particularly lame Billy Joel song )

Roger's pitchin' in the big leagues tonight
Quite a sight since he's past age forty-four
Just like the others always said he was clean
What a scene when they released The Mitchell Report

Say goodbye to Cooperstown,
Say goodbye, my baby
Say goodbye to Cooperstown,
Say goodbye, my baby


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Opponent, Not the Enemy

The Browns play the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. It's a big game, and I hope the Browns take it to the Bills. But I'll let you in on a little secret -- Buffalo is a team and a town that I will always like, and I think all Browns fans should feel the same way.

I grew up in Western New York and went to college in Buffalo. It's a great town that's taken the same kind of blows that we have over the past four decades. Back when Cleveland was the sixth largest city in the country, Buffalo was the eighth, so the people of Western New York know all about what it feels like to watch a place that you care about decline.

When I was a kid, there were so many people working at Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna that there wasn't enough room in the plant parking lot for them. Cars were double parked all along Route 5 outside the plant. Now that plant's not there anymore. Neither is the Chevy Forge Plant in Tonawanda, or two Trico plants in Buffalo itself.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Through it all, the people of Buffalo have remained fiercely proud of their town, and devoted to their sports teams despite some pretty trying times--including Wide Right, three other Super Bowl losses, the Music City Miracle, and No Goal.

See, they name their sports catastrophes too. Now can you see why I like these people?

Anyway, aside from our shared economic and sports woes, there are a couple of reasons that I think all Browns fans should keep a soft spot in their hearts for the good people of Buffalo and the Buffalo Bills. The first reason is that when the chips were down, they stood by us. The second reason is that it looks like their fans are going to have a pretty bitter pill of their own to swallow in the not too distant future.

As for standing by us when the chips were down, keep in mind that their owner, Ralph Wilson, was one of only a few owners who voted against Modell's efforts to move the team. After the Browns left, the Bills even had a "Cleveland Browns Day" at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Don't think that happened? Well, it did.

Now, sadly, it looks like it may be the Bills franchise that's in jeopardy of leaving its fans behind for a new city. Buffalo is less than 100 miles from Toronto, and rumors that the team might move to the greener economic pastures of The Great White North have been circulating for years. Although Ralph Wilson has said that he'd never move the team, he's 89 years old, and the team will be sold when he dies.

The team has a large Canadian fan base, and has recently announced a plan to try to attract even more support north of the border by holding one game per year in Toronto. The team says that economic conditions make this imperative, but let's face it, that's a pretty ominous sign when it comes to the team's future.

You can see what's coming like a freight train, can't you? Bills fans see it too, and yet they keep packing one of the league's largest stadiums, despite economic woes and their status as the smallest market in the AFC. Over the long term, the future doesn't look bright for Buffalo as an NFL city, and that's a shame, because nobody deserves to keep their team more than Buffalo does.

So, I hope the Browns stick it to the Bills on Sunday, but don't ask me to feel about Buffalo the way that I do about some of the other teams that come into town. It just isn't going to happen. I wish them well. Just not this week.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Another Step Closer

Jets coach Eric Mangini is the man who ratted out Bill Belichick for using a camera to steal his team's defensive signals. After watching yesterday's performance by Mangini and the rest of the Jets coaching staff, I'm wondering why Belichick even bothered to cheat.

I guess that's kind of a cheap shot. The Jets aren't terrible. In fact, they've got a surprising amount of talent, and they certainly gave the Browns all they could handle down the stretch. But some of Mangini's decisions down the stretch yesterday were pretty bizarre, and have a lot of people scratching their heads.

Of course, the strangest of those decisions was when Mangini opted to kick a field goal with his team trailing by less than a touchdown with under two minutes to play and the ball on the Cleveland 20 yard line. I'm not a statistician, but I've got to believe the odds of making a 4th down conversion inside the red zone are a little bit better than recovering two onside kicks in a single game. What's more, the worst that could have happened if the Jets didn't convert on 4th down would be that the Browns would get the ball on their own 20 yard line. The Jets had all three time outs remaining, and if they could get a stop, you've got to think they'd get the ball in pretty good field position, with 90 seconds or so to mount a drive.

Instead, by going for the field goal, Mangini put the Jets in a position where they had to roll the dice on another onside kick, knowing that the most likely scenario would be that the Browns would get the ball in Jets territory. So, even if the Jets were able to shut Cleveland down, the Browns would have a shot at a long field goal or, more likely, would be able to pin the Jets deep in their own territory. Sorry, but I just don't see the logic of picking up three points in the hope that lightning will strike twice when the most likely scenario is that you'll end up with a 30-40 yard negative swing in field position.

As it turned out, the Jets didn't even get the stop they were counting on. Thanks to Joe Jurevicius's heads up play on the onside kick, the Browns ended up with the ball deeper in Jets territory than they might have expected, and they capitalized on that field position with Jamal Lewis's 31 yard touchdown run. That put the Jets down by two scores, and kicked off a mass exodus of Jets fans that left the stadium virtually empty by the time the game ended -- even though the Jets were able to get another field goal and make things interesting again before the Browns finally escaped with the win.

By the way, despite the fact that they were down 24-18, Mangini's decisions were so odd that I'm not entirely convinced that if the Jets recovered the last onside kick, they'd wouldn't have kicked another field goal with :01 on the clock.

Anyway, that's enough about the strangeness of the Jets coaching decisions. How 'bout them Browns? Sure, it wasn't an outstanding performance, but any win on the road is a good win, and this one had some pretty encouraging aspects to it. First, there's the play of Jamal Lewis, who ran for 118 yards on 21 carries. Best of all, 65 of those yards came in the fourth quarter. Lewis appears to be over some of the nagging injuries that slowed him down mid-season and looks to be getting stronger. If so, that's just about the best news that the Browns offense could get right about now, because there's just nothing better when the snow flies than a healthy power back with some gas in his tank, and that's what Jamal Lewis gives the Browns.

Anderson wasn't great, but he wasn't terrible either. He threw some bad balls, but also had a few catchable passes dropped. Considering the playing conditions, neither of those things is very surprising. What is surprising, however, is that the Browns only turned the ball over once. Remember, last week in ideal conditions, they turned it over four times.

Defensively, you've got to give the Browns credit for a pretty good overall performance yesterday. Yeah, it got a little ugly at the end, and I don't understand why this team couldn't put away the Jets when they had the chance, but they did enough to win, and at times, they were terrific. In particular, the goal line stand after Rhodes's interception was one of the best team performances of the season. That was clearly a situation where the team needed its defensive unit to step up, and boy, did they ever respond.

It was ultimately Sean Jones's interception that stopped the Jets on that series, I think the key play in that stand was the play before, when Robaire Smith, Orpheus Roye and the rest of the offensive line just blew up a running play to Thomas Jones. Instead of third and goal from the one inch line, the Jets found themselves a long two yards from a score, and I'm sure that watching the Browns shred their offensive line on the previous play had a lot to do with their decision to throw in that situation.

Defensively, I also continue to like what I see from rookie Brandon McDonald, who just seems to be everywhere. He got his second pick in three weeks yesterday, and seems to be developing into a pretty solid cover guy. He also appears to be a decent tackler, who isn't afraid to take on a larger player one on one.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the significant improvement in the penalty situation this week. The Browns were penalized only four times for 29 yards, and that's a dramatic improvement over their performance against Arizona (and most weeks, for that matter).

The Browns' win, together with Buffalo's victory over Miami, sets us up for something that we haven't seen in this town in a long time -- a meaningful home game in December. Buffalo is 7-6, just one game behind the Browns in the playoff hunt, and that means while the Browns control their destiny, they better bring their "A" game next week against the dangerous Bills.

Damn, this is fun! I can't wait until next Sunday.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Rot Ro

That's the sound Scooby Doo would make when he noticed the ghost floating around in the corner or when he got mounted by a big, happy St. Bernard.

I suspect Mark Shapiro made a sound something like that when he discovered that Detroit had just acquired Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis from the Florida Marlins. Hats off to Dave Dombrowski. He got his team to the Series a couple of years ago, and decided that he liked it and wanted to try to get there again. That's the kind of bold move that teams who want to win the Series make.

Even though Detroit was one of the better offensive teams in the league last year, it just put together a batting order that may be the best in baseball:

1. Curtis Granderson (cf) .302 avg., 38 doubles, 23 triples, 23 homeruns, 26 sb's and gold glove caliber defense.
2. Placido Polanco (2b) .341 avg., 0 errors---that's 0 errors.
3. Miguel Cabrera (3b) .320 avg., 34 HR
4. Magglio Ordonez (rf) .363 avg. 28 HR
5. Gary Sheffield (dh) .265 avg. 25 HR 22 sb's
6. Carlos Guillen (1b) .296 avg. 21 HR 13 sb's
7. Ivan Rodriguez (c ) .281 avg. 11 HR --- and his 13th gold glove
8. Edgar Renteria (ss) .332 avg. 12 HR 11 sb's
9. Jacque Jones (lf) .285 avg 5 HR 6 sb's (with Marcus Thames---18 HR's on the bench)

That's not all. Detroit's starting rotation will be something like this:

1. Justin Verlander
2. Jeremy Bonderman
3. Dontrelle Willis
4. Nate Robertson
5. Kenny Rogers

What's all this mean? It means that any notion Shapiro and the Tribe had of winning the division and rolling into the playoffs just got splashed with the icy cold reality of dealing with a competitor who wants to win in more than in a metaphysical way. Detroit's a competitor who will committ the resources to winning. I question (and have questioned) Dolan's willingness to do it. Last year's victory parade covered a lot of his past sins of cheapness. I don't think Larry's gonna have that luxury this year. If the Tribe ends the Hot Stove season without making a significant move, they'll have fallen behind and will be playing against the Yankees for the wild card. That's not an enviable position for a team that was knocking on the door of the Series.

Like Shaggy might have said, "Zoinks Scoob, there's a big St. Bernard behind you."

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Flowers for Andra

When I was in high school, I had to read a book called Flowers for Algernon. It's about this mentally retarded guy who takes an experimental drug to enhance his intelligence. The experiment works so well that he becomes a genius. Tragically, the effects are temporary, and by the end of the book, the guy's back where he started.

Based on Pat McManamon's column in this morning's Beacon Journal, it sounds like some of the Browns are starting to think that they're the NFL's version of Flowers for Algernon, and that they're afraid that the drugs may be starting to wear off. McManamon quotes Andra Davis's comments after the Arizona game, where he apparently said "Now maybe everybody will stop talking about the playoffs and let us just focus on doing what we do, which we were doing from the get-go."

Fat chance, Andra.

At first blush, it's astounding to think that Davis would make a comment like this. I mean, come on, are you really so lacking in mental toughness that you get the heebee jeebees because fans --and even the media -- are excited about your success? If that's the case, then maybe your guidance counselor steered you in the wrong direction when he suggested a career as an NFL linebacker. Personally, I think you'd have been much happier as a Cleveland Indian.

When you think about it, however, maybe Davis's remarks aren't surprising at all. In fact, maybe they're the logical consequence of the way the organization has decided to deal with success. It's one thing to make sure that players focus on one week at a time, but it's another to turn the word "playoffs" into some sort of a taboo. That's what I think the Browns' coaching staff may have done, and by trying to keep the pressure off the players, they may have inadvertently turned up the heat. I mean, when Romeo Crennel -- who has been unfailingly cordial in the most trying of circumstances -- turns frosty whenever somebody in the media asks about the team's playoff possibilities, it's entirely possible that the players are getting a different message than the one he's trying to deliver.

After so many years of frustration, it's natural for the whole organization to be excited about being a playoff contender, and it isn't surprising that the team is feeling some pressure to get to the finish line. It's the coaching staff's job to help the team keep on an even keel, and I can only hope that Romeo Crennel has made loosening his team up a big priority this week at practice. Of course, if he wants to do that, he'd be smart to first allow himself and his coaches to loosen up about the team's playoff prospects. The Browns are good enough to make the playoffs, and the players and coaches shouldn't be afraid to admit that to themselves.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Merry Christmas, Arizona

I think I speak for all Ohioans when I say that I've seen quite enough of Glendale, Arizona for one year. Last January, Glendale hosted Ohio State's epic collapse, and yesterday, it was the site of the pilot for the NFL's new situation comedy, "Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?"

The Browns contributed 10 penalties to yesterday's mess, but somehow the Cardinals managed to outdo them, with 11 penalties of their own. The difference in the game was turnovers, with the Browns turning the ball over four times in total, and three times during their first four possessions. These turnovers led directly or indirectly to all three of Arizona's touchdowns, and that proved to be a hole too deep for even this offense to dig itself out of.

What infuriated me most about yesterday's game is just how much better than the Cardinals the Browns were. Just about the only way Cleveland could've lost that game is by doing exactly what they did -- gift wrapping it through turnovers and penalties. Merry Christmas from the Cleveland Browns.

Unfortunately, the Browns' generosity dented their own playoff hopes a little, although not too badly given the schedule they've got remaining. However, yesterday's loss turns up the heat on the team to get a win in next week's game against the woeful Jets. Lose that one, and I think I'm going to start to get the knots in my stomach that I had after the Tribe lost Game 5 of the ALCS. But I don't think that's what is going to happen. There are no "gimmes" in the NFL, but none of the teams left on the Browns' schedule will remind anybody of the Boston Red Sox, and I still think the Browns are in very good shape to win 9 or 10 games.

That being said, the Browns simply have to do something about the penalties that continue to plague them week in and week out. I think the turnover problems that the Browns experienced yesterday are an aberration, but the penalties aren't. Since the bye, the Browns have averaged nine penalties a game. Those infractions have cost them an average of over 72 yards per game. That's one hell of a hole to have to dig yourself out of each week. Penalties are the single biggest correctable problem that this team has (the defensive line will have to wait), and the failure to address the penalty situation is probably the coaching staff's biggest failing this season.

If the Browns don't figure out a way to stop the weekly avalanche of yellow flags, they could find themselves behind the eight ball again to another team they should beat. With two of the Browns' final three games including a home contest against a dangerous Buffalo team and a road trip to Cincinnati, the road to the playoffs could get pretty bumpy if they don't take care of business next Sunday.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Best Headline Ever

If you're a Cavs fan, the headlines just don't get better than this one. Put that one in your pipe and smoke it, Bill Simmons.

Fussing Over Football Fields

The rain-soaked abomination of a football game that Pittsburgh and Miami played on Monday night has a lot of people whining over the condition of Heinz Field. Sure, the field was a mess, but on the other hand, you're playing football in late November in the northern part of the United States. What the hell do you expect?

I guess the answer is that people expect quite a bit out of football fields these days. NFL fields start out the season better manicured than Augusta National's fairways, but they definitely endure a pounding. It's just unreasonable to think that natural grass fields in Cleveland and Pittsburgh are going to be anything but painted green dirt by this time of year, and efforts to prevent that by madly resodding fields after the growing season has ended only make this worse.

Of course, weird decisions like allowing four high school games and a college game to be played on Heinz Field right before a Steelers home game contribute to the problem, but I can't help but think that the team's efforts to fuss around with that field only made things worse. Come to think of it, efforts like this usually do make things worse. Remember the mess that the Horseshoe turned into last season? The Buckeyes replaced the field twice during the 2006 season, and ultimately decided to throw in the towel and put in Field Turf.

The Browns have had more success with their natural grass field, but only because they go to heroic lengths to keep it up. Think your neighbor is a Lawn Nazi? Check out the Browns' groundskeepers.

Back in the day, teams just didn't fuss with their fields this much. Remember when it rained, and players actually got mud on their uniforms? That didn't bother me. In fact, when I was a kid, the ability to roll around in the mud without your mom yelling at you was one of the best things about playing football. Now when it rains on college or pro fields, players just get wet, not dirty. Want to know why? The invention of something called Prescription Athletic Turf back in the early 1970s. This stuff and variants on it suck the water away from the grass and the soil underneath it, and prevent the ground from getting soggy, even if you're playing in a monsoon.

I guess these improvements to the playing fields are a good thing from the perspective of player safety, but I really do miss the mud. Besides that, I just think teams have gotten to the point where they've lost their perspective. Sure, you want a safe field for the guys you've invested millions of dollars in to play on, but you shouldn't aim to have a PGA Tour fairway to play on in Cleveland, Pittsburgh or Chicago in December. It just ain't gonna happen, and if you want it to, you're better off putting in Field Turf than trying to resod dead fields in December or January.

Maybe I'm just getting old, but it seems to me that two things in sports that just aren't as tough as they used to be are pitchers' arms and football playing fields. Then again, maybe it's just that teams obsess about these things a lot more than they once did. In any event, crotchety old man that I am, I liked things better the way they used to be. A little painted green dirt never hurt anybody.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Make Room on The Bandwagon for Me

Okay, I give. The 2007 Cleveland Browns have finally overcome all of the defense mechanisms that I've built up over the years of futility that we've endured since 1999. I'm officially jumping on the "this team's going to the playoffs" bandwagon.

To me, there's always been an air of unreality to the Browns' success this season. Early on, the Browns gave all of the signs of being a team in complete disarray. They appeared to have wasted an entire training camp on a QB contest that proved so futile that they pressed the reset button on the day after the Pittsburgh game, and jettisoned their most experienced QB in favor of a guy with size 17 feet and four NFL starts.

Trading Frye and putting the season in Anderson's hands seemed to be a reckless gamble by a desperate front office, but if it was, it paid off in spades during the first part of the season. Putting Anderson in charge was like adding rocket fuel to the offense's gas tank. The Browns responded immediately, and found themselves 3-3 at the bye, with wins against both the Ravens and the Bengals to their credit. That record came as a shock to me, and I think to quite a few other fans as well. After the week one meltdown, I thought the most likely scenario for the bye week was a 1-5 record, an interim head coach, and the beginning of the Brady Quinn era.

Despite the team's early success, a lot of questions remained. The defense was terrible, and every game was a track meet. How far could the Browns go knowing that they'd have to win a scoring contest each week? Then there were the penalties, which seemed to come in bunches. The Rams game, in particular, became a comic opera. The Browns opened the third quarter with a nice scoring 80 yard scoring drive. The only trouble was, they actually drove 105 yards thanks to a holding penalty and three false starts. It got worse after that. Remember the last drive of the third quarter? The Browns managed to get a field goal despite 30 yards in penalties, including Braylon Edwards' memorable Dwayne Rudd impersonation.

Those problems persisted well after the bye, and they were added to in recent weeks by the team's lackluster second half performances against Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Anderson appeared a lot less confident than he had earlier in the season, especially during the second half of those games. The Browns blew a 21-6 second quarter lead against Pittsburgh and a 27-14 fourth quarter lead against Baltimore. But for the miraculous chain of events that sent the Ravens game into overtime, the Browns would have entered the Texans game with back-to-back losses.

The Browns' recent troubles weren't lost on the local media. Just yesterday, Bill Livingston wrote an unusually coherent column in which he pointed out many of the concerns that fans had about Derek Anderson's performance in recent weeks. In particular, Livingston noted Anderson's lackluster performances against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and the fact that his best outings have occurred against the league's worst defenses.

So despite their record, the Browns faced a lot of questions going into the Houston game, and the good news is, they answered some of them in pretty convincing fashion. As usual, Terry Pluto said it best in his column this morning: it was the team's best performance of the season, and exactly how a playoff team performs at home.

No, it wasn't perfect. The Browns came out flat at the start of the game. Anderson misfired several times, and the play calling was uninspired to say the least. Uninspired, that is, unless your favorite short yardage play is "Metcalf up the middle," in which case the play calling in the first quarter was brilliant. That's because in their first two possessions, the Browns twice threw a running back without a lead blocker into the teeth of the Houston defense on third and fourth down short yardage situations. The first victim was Jason Wright, who wiffed on 3rd and 2 during the Browns first possession, while the second was Lawrence Vickers, who came up empty on 4th and 1 during the team's second series.

Meanwhile, the Texans picked the Cleveland secondary apart on a six play touchdown drive, and pretty much dominated the first quarter, outgaining the Browns 125 yards to 43, and holding the ball for almost nine minutes. Things looked pretty bleak for the Browns, but the tide turned quickly in the second quarter, starting with D'Qwell Jackson's interception of Matt Schaub's to TE Joel Dresseen. Jamal Lewis picked up three yards on first down, and the Browns picked up six more on second down.

That left the team in a familiar spot: 3rd and 1, but they handled it in an unfamiliar way. In hindsight, it was the next play that started me on the path to joining the playoff bandwagon. Why? Because the play was brilliant, and it showed me that there really is something that's different about this team -- it's just a little bit smarter than most of its opponents.

The Browns lined up in an I Formation, with Lawrence Vickers and Jamal Lewis in the backfield. Now, on the first two possessions, the Browns had lined up in a single back formation and tried to run the ball up the middle without a lead blocker. Looking at the formation and what the team had done on their first two possessions, it was pretty clear what the Browns were going to do: they were going to run Lewis outside, using Vickers as a lead blocker. The flow of the play headed in that direction, the Houston LBs bit on that flow and a nice fake by Derek Anderson. Meanwhile, Anderson spun around and hit Joe Jurevicius in the left flat. Thanks to the fake, Jurevicius had a lot of green in front of him, and he rambled for a gain of 25 yards.

What I liked about this play was the way the Browns turned lemons into lemonade. A lot of teams set up defenses for deception based on what they've done well. For example, a team with a strong power running game is often in an excellent position to use play action or to run misdirection. But what the Browns did was a little different. They deceived the Texans by using their past failures to set up a strong perception about what play was coming, and then did something completely unexpected. That's very smart football, and the ability to game plan on the fly like that distinguishes this team from a lot of other teams in the NFL.

That 3rd down conversion marked a turning point in the game. The Browns went on to score on Anderson's 19 yard strike to Edwards, and although the Texans responded with a field goal, the Browns were pretty much in control of the game from the second quarter on.

There were many things to be happy about yesterday, not the least of which was the way the defense stepped up and shut down a team that actually has a decent offense (the Texans rank 11th out of 32 teams). The Browns also demonstrated an ability to play the second half of a game as well or better than the first half, showed that Jamal Lewis remains a viable weapon, and showed that they could deliver a knock-out blow to an opponent when given the opportunity. Penalties remain an area of concern, but aside from that, you can't ask for much more out of a game than what the Browns delivered yesterday.

The Browns' final five games of the season all involve opponents with sub .500 records. That doesn't mean that you can pencil the Browns in for 11 or 12 wins, but I do think that 9 or 10 wins is a reasonable expectation at this point. The Browns are a young team with a lot of flaws. They will lose some games to teams they should beat, and I doubt very much that they'll storm into the playoffs or unseat Pittsburgh as the divisional champ. But assuming they stay healthy, I do think their chances of ending up in the playoffs when the dust settles are pretty darn good -- and the reason for that has as much to do with the smarts they've shown as the talent they've got.

So, make room on the bandwagon for one more. HERE WE GO BROWNIES! HERE WE GO! WOOF! WOOF!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

My Name is Kobayashi. I Work for Larry Dolan.

Talk about irony. On a day when former Indian and Steely McBeam confidant Kaz Tadano announced that he was returning to Japan, the club again turned to the Land of the Rising Sun for pitching help, and announced the signing of Chiba Lotte Marines reliever Masahide Kobayashi. Kobayashi has over 200 career saves in his nine year career, and the Tribe is hopeful that he can add more depth to the back end of the bullpen.

What I want to know is when are they going to finally sign somebody from my favorite Japanese team, The Nippon Ham Fighters? Mmmm. . .pork chops.

Anyway, my pal the Starfish said yesterday that Masahide Kobayashi is a great name for a baseball player, and I couldn't agree more. If I were a Japanese guy, I think I'd want my name to be "Kobayashi." I dunno, there's just a real Samurai-style coolness to that name.

In fact, it's so cool that I'm not even bothered by the fact that it's also the name of that hot dog eating guy (shown here getting his ass kicked in an eating contest by a giant bear), or that the Star Trek dorks love the name too. As Vinny and I both remembered yesterday, Kobayashi was also the name of Keyser Soze's lawyer in The Usual Suspects ("My Name is Kobayashi. I work for Keyser Soze."), and that 's cool enough to make up for the Star Trek thing.

According to Wikipedia, Kobayashi means small forest and is the ninth most common Japanese surname. Whatever. I hope the guy can pitch.

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Win's a Win, But...

While everybody is still jazzed up about the wild ending to yesterday's game, I think Kellen Winslow's reaction to yesterday's game is probably the most appropriate one. K2 was reportedly a little down in the locker room, and was quoted as saying "We've got to play better. We didn't play well in the second half. We've got to play better, man."

All's well that ends well, but for the second week in a row, the Browns blew a big lead to a division opponent on the road. It's somewhat understandable if the opponent in question is the Pittsburgh Steelers, but to blow a 27-14 lead at the beginning of the 4th quarter to the likes of Kyle Boller and the anemic Baltimore Ravens offense is pretty disturbing.

The Browns are starting to have fans thinking about playoff possibilities. They've certainly got a golden opportunity to make a playoff run, but if they continue to take their foot off the gas pedal and try to sit on a lead, they aren't going anywhere. They simply don't have the defensive firepower to play that way and win consistently.

As far as I'm concerned, the Brown simply must make the playoffs this season, if for no other reason than to avoid having CBS's 5th or 6th team announcers assigned to most of their games. Otherwise, we'll be stuck with the likes of Gus Johnson and Steve Tasker or Ian Eagle and Solomon Wilcots calling Browns games for the foreseeable future.

Wilcots, who has very nearly perfected the "frequently wrong but never in doubt" approach to broadcasting, was particularly grating yesterday. He spent a good deal of the first half wondering out loud whether the Browns believed that they were good enough to beat the Ravens, apparently oblivious to the fact that they'd already done so once this season. Then he somehow convinced himself that the Browns got a bit of a break when the replay system broke down on Baltimore's challenge to Carter's reception in the second quarter -- even though the replay that CBS broadcast plainly showed that Carter had both feet in bounds.

But the highlight of Wilcots' performance came with Dawson's field goal at the end of regulation. He and his partner were absolutely clueless about what was happening on the field. I can't blame him for that, since it was one of the most bizarre events I've ever witnessed. Still, you'd think that if he didn't know what was going on, he'd at least shut up until things were sorted out. Unfortunately, he chose not to do that. Instead, he kept babbling about how although the ball passed through the uprights, it bounced back in front of the goal post, as if that somehow mattered.

There are lots of reasons why it would be great to see the Browns make the playoffs this season, but I think that an opportunity to move up the TV commentator food chain definitely belongs on the list.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Hunting Barry Bonds

If you've read anything I've written about the guy, you know that I can't stand Barry Bonds and that I'm a proud member of the pro-asterisk crowd. But what looks to me to be a questionably motivated decision to indict Barry Bonds bothers me a lot more than anything that Bonds has allegedly done.

Keep in mind that this grand jury was convened just a month after Sports Illustrated published the now famous excerpt from Game of Shadows. Was new evidence brought forth in that book? Nope. As the authors themselves acknowledged, most of the allegations against Bonds that surfaced in Game of Shadows were drawn from information that was in front of that grand jury. In other words, the feds had all of the information about Bonds' conduct for more than a year, yet only after a big public splash was made did they decide to go after Bonds.

Over the past couple of years, we've all witnessed the parade of MLB superstars denying or obfuscating their involvement with steroids. This hasn't just been in front of the media; it's also occurred in sworn testimony. We all watched Raphael Palmiero adamantly deny--under oath in front of a congressional committee--that he used steroids, and then we watched him test positive for them only a couple of months later. They looked into prosecuting him, but decided against it. Mark McGwire's weepy evasiveness before that same committee could have landed him contempt charges, but didn't. What makes Bonds' case different?

Let me tell you exactly what the prosecutors will say: because Bonds allegedly perjured himself in a grand jury proceeding, and perjury in that setting strikes at the foundation of our judicial system and the rule of law. When they say that, just remember that these are the guys who gave a green light to waterboarding, so take their statements about their devotion to the rule of law with more than a grain or two of salt.

Did Barry engage in illegal conduct? most of us would probably bet that he did, but let me tell you a little secret about the American legal system: some federal criminal statutes are so broad in their scope that my educated guess is that most law abiding Americans over the age of 30 have at some point in their lives engaged in conduct that could get them indicted for at least one felony.

Remember, America hates Bonds because we think he took steroids, but that's not what he's being charged with. The feds are going after him for what he did or didn't say in the course of the grand jury proceedings. That allows them to charge him with crimes like obstruction of justice, which are particularly sweeping in their application, and are therefore particularly prone to abuse.

So, while Bonds may have done something wrong, I think that Bonds' high profile and unpopularity with the public have played a big role in the decision to seek an indictment against him. Federal prosecutors think that prosecuting Bonds will be a very popular-- not to mention career advancing -- decision. I think they're right about that, but I also think that prosecuting him is wrong. Barry is being singled out because he's a bad guy. But folks, being a bad guy isn't illegal. This is America. We're supposed to be better than that.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

All-Time Great Kick Returners

Joshua Cribbs electrified Browns fans again last weekend with kick returns of 90 and 100 yards against Pittsburgh. As Jeff Walcott's recent article on the Browns' web site points out, Cribbs is having a simply spectacular season. Not only has he surpassed Dino Hall to become the Browns' all-time leader in kick return yardage, but his 1,230 yards on kick returns is tops in the NFL, and his 32.4 yards per return average ranks him among the league's top five.

This is a golden age for NFL kick returners. For example, while Cribbs has given Browns fans plenty to cheer about, the Chicago Bears' Devin Hester may just be the best kick returner of all time, and he's only been in the league for two seasons. These guys accomplishments have allowed them to eclipse Dante Hall, aka the "X Factor," in the imagination of fans, but they can't rest on their laurels, because just last weekend, the Chargers' Darren Sproles became the first player since 2002 to return a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns in the same game.

The accomplishments of the current crop of return men may make some fans think that these guys invented the art of the kick return. That's certainly not the case, and as a Browns fan, names like Eric Metcalf and Greg Pruitt immediately come to mind as players who could turn a game around with a kick return. Eric Metcalf, in particular, is the Brown whose returns I remember as being the most spectacular.

Metcalf's greatest day was against the Steelers in 1993, when he became the first player in NFL history to score two touchdowns in a single game on punt returns longer than 75 yards. If I did this right, and you have RealPlayer, you should be able to listen to Nev Chandler's call of one of those touchdown returns by clicking right here. (It's also available on this page at the Browns' website.)

No discussion of kick returners would be complete without acknowledging Brian Mitchell, who ranks second all-time in total yardage (23,330), primarily as a result of the 14,014 yards he gained on kickoff returns and the 4,999 yards he gained running back punts, or the late Travis Williams, who averaged an incredible 41 yards per return for the Green Bay Packers in 1967. There were plenty of other great return men as well, including guys like Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, who was selected as the punt returner on the NFL's 75th anniversary team, and St. Joe's own Desmond Howard, who was named MVP of Super Bowl XXI on the strength of his 244 yards in total returns, and remains the only special teams player to earn that honor.

When it comes to all-time greats, however, I think you've got to give the nod to a Chicago Bear, but not Devin Hester, or at least not yet Devin Hester. For now, the guy who remains #1 in my book is the immortal Gale Sayers, who is still the only man to average over 30 yards per return for his entire career. Jim Brown was the greatest football player who ever lived, but I don't think there was ever a better open-field runner than Sayers. When he was healthy, he did things that I've never seen anybody else do with a football. If you check out this video, you'll get a sense for what I'm talking about:

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Sometimes I think people get too caught up about the wonders of today's NFL players, and how they're such great athletes and training techniques are so advanced that there's just no comparison between them and players of earlier eras. That's probably true for most players, but even in today's golden age of kick returners, I'd wager that the Kansas Comet could still run with the big dogs. Oh yeah, he could probably play a little tailback too.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Do The Right Thing

Romeo, it's time.

Please submit your resignation, or at least inform Savage that you'll do so immediately after the last game.

You're a lousy head coach. You might have been a good defensive coach, although it's not evident here in Cleveland with the abomination you and Grantham keep trotting out on Sundays. But, I'll concede that you know something about being a good defensive coordinator. What I won't do is pretend that you're a good head coach or administrator. There's too much evidence to the contrary. The loss to the hated Steelers today was yours. You earned it. Now, own it. Who the hell calls a timeout and then tosses the red challenge flag? That's the kind of shit that causes road rage. Who the hell loses two timeouts on one play?

You. Only you.

Don't you think an extra timeout might have been helpful during your last possession? I was watching the game with a bunch of drunks. Even they were stunned by your double timeout. Why don't you get a clue about running a team, or at least do what my pals did---start drinking and then go home...for good.

Friday, November 09, 2007

A Little Something for The Xs and Os Junkies

For quite some time, I've thought that Navy's Paul Johnson may well be college football's best coach. He certainly showcased his coaching ability last weekend when he and his squad put it to my beloved and beleaguered Fighting Irish.

I don't know about you, but I love watching an Option offense like Navy's. It isn't always the most exciting offense, but it is the offense that, at the college level, has enabled more out-manned teams to compete over the years than any other I can think of. At the high school level, that honor has to go to the Double Wing, but in college, it's the Option, hands down.

With App State's win over Michigan, some may say that the Spread Option offense will supplant the traditional Option as the choice of undermanned squads, but I don't think so. The Spread Option runs on speed, and the teams that do it best are those with great athletes. App State was smaller than Michigan, but its backs and receivers were blazingly fast -- or at least faster than anything that the Wolverines could throw at them on defense.

In contrast, the traditional Option depends primarily on discipline -- guys consistently being in the right place at the right time -- and on the QB making the right reads. For some reason I've got a problem linking directly to this post, but if you click here and scroll down to the post entitled "Simple Complexity," you'll get the best analysis of Paul Johnson's offense that you'll ever see outside of a coaches clinic, complete with game footage from the Notre Dame v. Navy game. If you're an Xs and Os guy, this one is guaranteed to make your day.

Monday, November 05, 2007

There's No Quit in Them

I took my sons to the Browns game yesterday, and boy, am I ever glad I did. They've been to several games over the years since the Browns returned, but I think you know what I'm talking about when I say that yesterday, they saw the Cleveland Browns for the first time.

There were so many moments of greatness yesterday that it's almost pointless to recount them all, but what made that game so great, and what made it so reminiscent of the Browns we fell in love with, was every player's stubborn refusal to quit under circumstances where the last several editions of this team almost certainly would have.

Chances abounded for this team to throw in the towel. First, there was Nate Burleson's 94 yard punt return in which no fewer than seven Browns missed tackles. That play put the Browns in a 21-6 hole late in the second quarter, but the Browns knuckled down and put together a scoring drive with less than 2:00 left in the first half.

Of course, they could've thrown in the towel when that drive stalled and they had to settle for a field goal after having the ball first and goal from the two yard line, but they didn't. Instead, they took the first possession of the second half and promptly went 69 yards in 11 plays. When Jamal Lewis scored on a one yard run, they closed the gap to 21-16.

When Seattle responded to that drive with one of its own, and increased its lead to 24-16, you could almost hear the ghost of Butch Davis warming up one of his "I'm tellin' ya what, these guys played their guts out today" speeches. Instead, the Browns actually did play their guts out, and after swapping punts with Seattle, drove 54 yards on the backs of Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards. After Anderson hit Winslow for a 13 yard gain on 4th and 1 from the Seattle 15, Jamal Lewis punched -- and I do mean punched -- the ball in from the two yard line, and the Browns just needed a two point conversion to tie the game.

They didn't get it, as Anderson's pass to Edwards was knocked away. So, with less than 13 minutes left to play, the Browns found themselves down by two points to the defending Western Division champs, who promptly went on a 64 yard drive that culminated in a field goal. That gave the Seahawks a 27-22 lead with 7:55 left to play.

Josh Cribbs returned the ensuing kickoff to the 35, but a holding penalty on Darnell Dinkins pinned them back on their own 11 yard line. Historically, that would have been the signal for them to engage in three ill-conceived pass plays, at least one of which involved a sack, followed by a punt and a game ending drive for the Seahawks. Not this time, and not this team.

Instead, the Browns got to work, and moved the ball 89 yards in 14 plays. Like most of the drives that the Browns put together yesterday, they rode Derek Anderson's arm and Winslow, Edwards and Jurevicius's hands almost all the way. But when it came time to pound out the last yard or so, they turned to Jamal Lewis, and he once again didn't let them down. Lewis's fourth rushing touchdown of the afternoon gave the Browns their first lead of the day, and Joe Jurevicius's two-point conversion made sure that a field goal wouldn't beat them.

That turned out to be a crucial play, because the Seahawks drove 67 yards to set up a game tying field goal, which they kicked just as regulation ended. That meant that it was time for the Browns to roll the boulder up the hill again, and that hill looked mighty steep when Seattle won the toss and got the ball to start overtime.

Oh well, a valiant effort, but we know how it plays out from here, right? Wrong.

The Seahawks appeared to be on a roll when Bobby Engram made his 12,oooth catch of the afternoon for a 17 yard gain, which moved the ball to the Seattle 47 yard line. But then a short completion to Engram was followed up by an incomplete pass, and the Seahawks faced 3rd and 8 from midfield. That's when things got interesting. The Browns actually got some pressure on Hasselbeck as he dropped back to pass, and he tucked the ball in and ran up the middle for an apparent first down. Fortunately, the replay rule worked the way it was supposed to, and it was determined that Hasselbeck was actually half a yard short.

By the way, Mike Holgren can whine all he wants about that play being overturned; it was clearly the correct decision.

In any event, that brought up the pivotal play of the game -- 4th down and about 18 inches to go. Fourth and short hasn't been an area of strength for the Browns' defense over the years, but they came up huge yesterday. The Seahawks tried a running play, but Sean Jones shot in from the back side and made the initial hit on Maurice Morris in the backfield, and aided by a tremendous line surge and a nice tackling by Andre Davis, the Browns shut the Seahawks down, and took over on their own 43 yard line.

Now, if you weren't at Cleveland Browns Stadium yesterday, let me tell you that the crowd had been on the edge of its seats pretty much the entire second half, but the Browns' 4th down stop in overtime whipped us into a complete frenzy. You could feel it. This was no longer about gallant efforts or playing their guts out or showing improvement -- these guys were going to win the damn game!

And they went out and did just that, thanks to a brilliant screen pass call by Rob Chudzinski that was executed to perfection by Jamal Lewis and the entire offensive unit. That play went for 34 yards, and together with a 10 yard run by Derek "Twinkletoes" Anderson, set up Phil Dawson's game winning 25 yard field goal. Dawson kicked it cleanly, and it split the uprights.

In keeping with the whole tenor of the game, there looked to be another bit of adversity for the Browns to overcome. As the ball split the uprights, penalty flags flew everywhere. The Seahawks signaled that the call was on the Browns, but it turned out that Seattle had 12 men on the field. The game was finally over, and the Cleveland Browns -- our Cleveland Browns-- were 5-3.

As I watched the exhausted, banged-up and, most importantly, victorious Browns walk off the field, I was reminded of what the Duke of Wellington said at the height of the Battle of Waterloo: "Hard pounding, this, gentlemen. Let's see who pounds the longest." Last night, it was the Cleveland Browns who took everything that Seattle had to throw at them, but kept right on pounding. Kellen Winslow summed it up when he said "I'm proud of us, man. We fought as a team...We deserve this."

The fans are proud of you too, and you do deserve this. This is a team that's easy to love. Sure, there are holes in the defense, but the Browns are exciting, they're fun, and as the entire team showed yesterday, there's no quit in any of them.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Browns v. Seahawks

This is a pretty big game for the Cleveland Browns. They are playing a team that has made the playoffs following each of the past four seasons, and that's two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance. A victory against the Seattle Seahawks would show the nation that the Cleveland Browns are legitimately in the playoff hunt -- that is, if anybody outside of Cleveland and Seattle were actually paying any attention to the game. Today belongs to the Colts and Patriots, and everything else is just a sideshow.

Actually, I may have even overstated the interest in Browns game when I said people in Seattle were going to be paying attention to it. While most fans won't be able to watch the Colts and Patriots here in Cleveland, the isn't going to be blacked out in the Seattle market, so I'm guessing it will prove to be pretty stiff competition for fan attention there as well.

The Browns are slight favorites in this game, but I'm not sure that they should be. Seattle is coming off a bye week, but throttled the St. Louis Rams 33-6 in the last game the Seahawks played. The Seahawks have struggled with the running game this season, and currently rank 22nd in the league in rushing. They apparently spent a lot of time over the bye week experimenting with various fixes intended to help the running game, but haven't made any personnel changes.

It's nice that Seattle has had a hard time moving the ball on the ground, but the Browns' defense is so atrocious against the run that it's hard to draw much comfort from Seattle's problems. The Seahawks have been more effective through the air, which is even worse news for the Browns, because while they rank a lofty 29th in the league against the run, they rank dead last in the AFC and 31st overall against the pass.

The bottom line is that, as has been the case all season, the Browns go into this game knowing that their opponent is going to score a lot of points this afternoon, and if they want to win, they're going to have to match them. So, that brings us to the Seahawks' defense, which has been solid, if not spectacular. The team's led by OLB Julian Peterson, who has more sacks than any other linebacker in the NFC (7.0) and is tied for the league lead in forced fumbles with four. His teammate, MLB Lofa Tatupu, is right behind him with three forced fumbles.

While Seattle's linebacking corps is intimidating, the good news for the Browns is that Seattle's cornerbacks are undersized, and Edwards, Winslow and Jurevicius present them with some significant matchup problems. If media reports are to be believed, Seattle may opt to put Peterson on Winslow in passing situations. It would be terrific if the Browns could force the Seahawks' best pass rusher out of the equation like that, but let's just say I'll believe it when I see it.

A lot of attention has been paid to the return of former Browns Charlie Frye and Brian Russell, particularly in light of the feud that's supposedly simmering between Russell and Braylon Edwards over Edwards' comments last season about Russell's hit on Cincinnati's Chad Johnson. I think that Rob Chudzinski's assessment of Frye's impact on the game (not much) is about right, and I think the biggest impact that Russell will have on this game lies in the fact that he's not wearing a Browns uniform, not his feud with Braylon. The Browns flat out miss the guy. As The Orange and Brown Report points out, without Russell in the lineup, the team's surrendered 18 touchdown passes this season, only two fewer than they did all of last year.

When I put all of these disjointed ramblings together, I have a hard time predicting a Browns victory today. I just think that Seattle's a little bit better than the Browns, and that it will show up in the final score.

Seattle 34, Browns 30.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Browns Are Actually FUN Again

After slogging through year after year of boring, predictable and downright horrible football, my frustration level with the Cleveland Browns had just about reached the boiling point. As I would drag myself to the Stadium to attend their games week after week, I'd get the same feeling that I had when I was heading off to have dental work done.

That wasn't exactly the experience I was looking for when I shelled out money for season tickets year in and year out, but for some reason, I kept on writing the checks. Now I think I remember why. When done right, NFL football is a downright thrilling experience -- and for the first time in years, the Cleveland Browns are doing it right.

I'm not deluding myself into thinking this is a good football team. I've seen the defense play, so I'll leave that kind of hyperbole to the talk radio guys. But it is an extremely entertaining football team when it has the football, and what's more, it is a young team that fans have legitimate reasons to believe is going to get better with time.

A lot of people thought the Browns would have an interim head coach and a full blown a QB controversy raging by now. I was one of them, and after the team's horrendous performance against the Steelers in week one and the subsequent decision to trade the guy who'd won the QB job in training camp, I wouldn't have given you odds on the length of Phil Savage's remaining tenure in this town either.

Instead, the shake-up at the QB position appeared to be exactly what the doctor ordered, and has resulted in six weeks of the most explosive offensive display that we've seen in this city since the late 1980s, and by some measures, since the late 1960s. That being said, it isn't all sunshine on the offensive side of the ball. As the performance against the Rams proved, the team still has an uncanny ability to repeatedly commit penalties that leave them looking at 2nd or 3rd and long too many times. Braylon Edwards' antics with his helmet at the end of the 3rd Quarter also shows that the ghost of Dwayne Rudd is still hanging around, and that we should continue to expect various members of the team to periodically engage in conduct that suggests that they have somehow suffered severe brain damage.

While the offense is good and the play of the QB and receivers seems to get better every week, the defense is awful, and is ultimately going to be what keeps this team out of the playoffs this season. That point was really brought home yesterday, when the banged-up Rams, who are averaging less than 300 yards in offense per game, were able to put up almost 400 yards of total offense against the Browns. Most of it came through the air, particularly after Steven Jackson left the game in the second quarter.

Jackson's departure was particularly good news for the Browns, because as bad as they are against the pass, they may even be worse against the rush. There are a lot of reasons why Phil Savage may have decided to pass on signing Grady Jackson to bolster the run defense, but maybe the biggest thing that decision tells us is that the holes are so big and so numerous that he doesn't think there's much that can be done to improve that aspect of the defense this season.

Fortunately, the Browns defense stiffened at key times and forced some turnovers to keep the Rams from putting points on the board. Unfortunately, however, the team is going to face better offenses over the course of the next four weeks, especially when it travels to Pittsburgh and when the Texans come to town.

While I'm enjoying the Browns, the ineptitude of the defense and the inability to eliminate stupid mistakes on offense makes me very dubious of claims that this is a team headed for the playoffs this year. Check back with me in a month, though, because if the Browns manage to get through the next four weeks and still have a record above .500, then those playoff dreams may not be so crazy after all.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


This may just be the strangest play I've ever seen on a football field. It happened yesterday, in a Division III game between Trinity University and Milsaps College. Trinity was down, 24-22, with :02 left in the game. Sixty-one yards and 15 laterals later, they won the game 28-24. If you haven't seen it on Sportscenter, check it out:

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Grady Jackson Is A Risk Worth Taking

The Atlanta Falcons' surprising decision to release veteran DT Grady Jackson has led to speculation that the Browns may have an interest in him. Jackson's advocates think he'd look mighty good in an orange helmet, and point to the fact that he led the NFL in tackles for loss last season, and that he already has 5 1/2 tackles for loss this year. Despite those numbers, other experienced Browns watchers suggest that Phil Savage has no interest in Grady Jackson.

Given the sorry state of the Browns defensive line overall, and Ted Washington's less than stellar performance at NT in particular, why not give Jackson a try? There are several reasons why the Browns might not want to sign Jackson. First of all, Atlanta may be a train wreck, but releasing a starting defensive linemen with statistics like Jackson's in the middle of the season definitely raises some warning flags that need to be checked out. I'd want to see the Browns do a lot of homework before signing Jackson under these circumstances, even if he didn't come with a lot of other baggage.

What "other baggage" am I talking about? Well, first there's the fact that Jackson is an enormous tub of goo with a reputation for being a talented but lazy player. He's listed at 362 lbs., but reportedly is closer to 400 lbs. With Jackson's obviously less than maniacal commitment to conditioning, it's probably no surprise that he's also got a history of injuries, including a chronically bad shoulder and dislocated knee suffered when playing for the Packers back in 2005.

Then there's the clubhouse cancer issue. Jackson has created distractions just about everywhere he's been in recent seasons. He feuded with his coaches in New Orleans, threatened a hold out in Green Bay a year after he signed his contract, and actually sued the Falcons last spring in an apparently successful ploy to extract more money from the club. Distractions like those are something the Browns definitely don't need.

Despite all of those issues, if he's healthy and motivated, Jackson's potentially a huge upgrade from what the Browns currently have at the NT position, and could help bolster one of the league's worst defenses against the rush. The Browns would be nuts to assume his contract (which pays him $1 million per year, runs through 2009 and includes roster bonuses of $2 million per year in 2008 and 2009), but if he clears waivers the team could do a lot worse than rolling the dice on Jackson for the remainder of the season.

If the Browns are serious about trying to make a run for the playoffs, they've got to do something to improve their run defense. Signing Grady Jackson right now may be their best chance to do that. Yes, Grady Jackson is a risk, but he's a risk worth taking.

Monday, October 22, 2007

It's Choke Time Now!

The Indians choked in spectacular fashion this weekend. With only one game separating them from the World Series, the core of this team did exactly what they did two years ago during the last week of the regular season -- they laid down and died, too overwhelmed by the situation to perform in circumstances that were almost tailor made for them to succeed.

Nothing says "we have no heart" better than being outscored 30-5 in three straight ALCS games, particularly when you consider that the Indians had Cy Young candidates on the hill for two of those games. This team obviously has some talent, but until they find some heart, Ozzie Guillen's taunt will remain right on the money.

You choked, Tribe. Live with it. We have to.

Oh, and thanks for adding one more Cleveland joke to the nation's repertoire.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

You've really got to be shittin' me.

Paul Byrd was allegedly juicing. Nice timing, but Shapiro claims he was aware of the allegations.

So, now it's nut cutting time for the Tribe. Jake Westbrook faces the $100,000,000 man---Daisuke Matsuzaka, who's a question mark. Only C.C. has been as consistently bad as Dice-K in the playoffs. And Dice-K has really sucked. Of course, so had Schilling, but he dominated the Indians in Game 6.

Does anybody out there think Travis Hafner has one meaningful hit left in his bat? Shit, does anyone think Hafner will put a ball in play? He's simply killed the Tribe in the Boston series.
Well, now he has to stand up in Fenway. The cupboard is bare. It's not like Wedge can start someone else in that spot. The offense has to take charge because, unless Westbrook pitches spectacularly---and he's capable of it, the Tribe's gonna need a lot of runs. The bullpen, which had been a strength, is pretty beaten up.

What's all this mean? As Bette Davis once said, "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night."