Sunday, August 26, 2007

No Ifs, Ands, or "Butts," the Browns Were Better

Now that's a little more like it! The Cleveland Browns actually looked like a professional football team at times last night.

Offensively, the Browns got solid performances from all three QBs and the offensive line. The receivers also showed up, and while Jamal Lewis didn't run roughshod over the Broncos defense, he did pick up key yards and even scored a rushing touchdown. Even though Lewis didn't gain yards in big chunks, his performance near the goal line impressed me. He may have lost a step or two due to his injuries, but he's still a back who smells the end zone, and we haven't had somebody like that here in ages.

Speaking of Lewis, it has become fashionable among football pundits to say that he's going to have a huge year. These guys throw out outlandish yardage expectations for Lewis, at the same time as they pontificate about how terrible the Cleveland Browns are. Sports Illustrated's Peter King is the classic example of this schizophrenic behavior. King ranked the Browns 32nd in his NFL power ratings, but he then went on to predict that Lewis was a lock for 1,300 yards.

Those opinions are not just contradictory; they're downright incoherent. That kind of output would have put Lewis among the top 5 rushers in the AFC last season, and among the top ten in entire National Football League. Only one team with a rusher ranking among the NFL's top 10 had a losing record in 2006, and that team went 7-9 (the 49ers). So if he really believes that the Browns will run the ball that effectively, it's almost inconceivable that King could rank the Browns 32nd out of 32 NFL teams. But he did, because he's a jackass.

Fortunately, some people seem to have gotten away from the media herd when it comes to the Browns. As our friend Dwayne Rudd's Helmet found out, the statistical wonks over at Pro Football Outsiders are positively giddy about Cleveland's chances to beat its over/under number of 6 wins. Maybe "giddy" isn't the right word, but how else would you characterize a quote like this: "There’s a serious success story brewing here, and a real chance to make money." Check out the analysis for yourself. It's nice to see that not every pundit in America has his head up his butt when it comes to Browns.

Speaking of butts (yes, I'm going to talk about what you think I'm going to talk about), let's spend a little time on the defense's performance last night. Things were a bit shakier on the defensive side of the ball than they were on offense. The linebackers were impressive at times, but overall the defensive unit was mediocre. While they did a nice job shutting the Broncos down for most of the first half, the Broncos sliced and diced them on their way to a touchdown during their final drive of the second quarter.

The Browns' defense also provided us with what was far and away the most disturbing image of the night. Yup, you guessed it -- I'm talking about Shaun Smith's gigantic butt crack, which bears a striking resemblance to Peter King and spent most of the evening hanging out of Smith's undersized football pants. No offense Shaun, but that thing just ain't that pretty at all. In fact, I feel much more traumatized by that sight than I ever was by the sight of Janet Jackson's boobie at the Super Bowl.

I'll get over the trauma caused by repeated exposure to Smith's Grand Canyon, but it is going to take some time. (And I'm flat out begging the Browns equipment people to find Smith some football pants that fit. For God's sake, think of the children!) In the meantime, I'll console myself with the knowledge that in our roller coaster ride through the preseason, the Browns made sure that this is going to be an "up" week.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Be Careful What You Wish For

Vinny's post highlights the fact that the calls for Brady Quinn to start are only going to get louder in light of his positively Bradylicious (or, as the PD put it, "Quinn-tastic!") performance against the Detroit Lions last night.

There's no denying that Frye and Anderson both put the "A" in atrocious yesterday, and there's also no denying that Quinn played very well. In fact, he performed every bit as well against Detroit's fourth string defense as he did in college against Army, Navy, Air Force and the St. Mary's powder puff team -- and my 13 year old daughter informs me that he looked positively dreamy doing it too!

But as I watched Quinn last night, I also saw that the Jacksonville Jaguars announced that they had released Tim Couch. That particular ghost of Christmas past should continue to serve as a reminder to even the most rabid Quinn supporter of the hazards of rushing a rookie franchise QB into service before he -- or more importantly, his supporting cast -- is ready.

I'll admit that the Tim Couch analogies only go so far. The 2007 Browns have a much better receiving corps than Couch had, and they may actually have a running game and a halfway decent offensive line at some point this season. Nevertheless, by trading next year's first round pick for the rights to Quinn, the Browns have bet a good portion of their future on this kid, and maximizing his potential for success should be a top priority.

The problem is that if the season plays itself out the way that I fear it might, and the Browns are staring at a potential 1-5 start, the decision about what's best for the future of the team will be made by two guys whose futures with the club may be measured in weeks, not years. That's where the comparison with Tim Couch comes in.

In 1999, Ty Detmer was brought in to mentor Tim Couch. Detmer was supposed to start off the season as the starter, with a gradual transition to Couch being made during the course of the year. Instead, the panicky coaching staff and marketing obsessed front office saw to it that Couch's period as understudy lasted a grand total of two and a half quarters. He fought hard that season, but picked up bad habits that he never managed to break, along with more than his share of dents and scratches that continued to pile up over his career.

So be careful what you wish for, Browns fans, because you may well get it. If Frye can't perform markedly better than he did last night, you'll definitely get Quinn pretty early in the season. Who knows? It might work out. After all, Bernie Kosar came in five games into his rookie season and played right up until his skills diminished. But is that the best way to protect the team's substantial investment in Quinn?

Bernie had a formidable running game to prevent defenses from teeing off on him and that helped cushion his entry into the starting role. I'm not sure what Quinn will have going for him when he gets the call, but if it comes in the most likely scenario (i.e., coming in as relief after a dismal start to the season), the answer may be not much. Those are hardly auspicious circumstances under which to turn over the reigns to a rookie QB, and unless we want the next eight years of Browns history to resemble the last eight, I think we need to keep that in mind before we join in the chants for BRA-DY! BRA-DY!

Stirring the pot.

I returned home yesterday from vacation, and after a thirteen-hour drive that was made brutal by the hilljacks in the Carolinas, I settled in to watch the Browns. Because I was ready for a relaxing evening at my shack, I made a mistake. I left the television volume on. That allowed Jim Donovan to spend the evening nattering in his impatient voice about the game because I wasn't going to get up again and my wife was in the other room. Maybe he was impatient with his colleague. Bernie Kosar sounded drunk or punch drunk, at least. As the game unfolded, I felt punch drunk too.

The quarterback play for three quarters was horrendous. If Charlie Frye gives the Browns the best chance to win, then the Browns have no chance. He's not too smart.

By the fourth quarter, the fans had had enough. Those who stayed began chanting for Brady Quinn. When he came in, he didn't disappoint. He moved the Browns up and down the field two times for touchdowns. I know that it was garbage time, that the defense was playing soft, and that it was a bunch of reserves, but Quinn didn't pick his opponents or the defensive scheme. He just exploited both of them.

He ended up 13 of 20 for 2 touchdowns and 155 yards in a little over 9 minutes. Of his seven incompletions, four of those were when he spiked the ball to stop the clock. So, that means he was 13 of 16 in those situations where he was trying to pass. He connected with Efrem Hill and Jerome Harrison for the two touchdowns. Neither of whom is likely to be a "go-to guy" in the red zone this season. So, Quinn put up pretty good numbers, using the Browns' second and third team players, against Detroit's second and third team players who were in soft coverage. That alone doesn't mean much. The positives from his performance were that he made good decisions---taking what the defense gave him, and that he executed well in the scenarios that he confronted.

Does last night mean that Quinn gets to be the starter? No. That's easy.

But, what it does is annoint him as the fans' favorite as long as he sits on the bench. It also forces Crennel to give him some snaps against first team defenses to find out what the kid can really do. Charlie Frye's still the guy for now, despite his continuous boneheaded decision making, but he just helped to dump an awful big load of added pressure on his shoulders. No one other than the most rabid Golden Domers and fanciful 14 year old girls would care about Brady Quinn if Charlie had done his job. He didn't. That means one of the worst teams in pro football now gets to have an honest to goodness quarterback controversy.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

It Wasn't As Bad As Advertised

I read the accounts of last night's Browns game in this morning's Beacon Journal and Plain Dealer, and it occurs to me that those reporters may well have written their stories before the game even started, and decided that it adhered closely enough to their chosen plot line that there was no need to revise their stories to fit what actually happened.

If you read Pat McManamon's account of the game, you'll find that neither Charlie Frye nor Derek Anderson took a step forward last night, and that the Browns QB situation remains as muddled as ever. Meanwhile, back at The Plain Dealer, field events aficionado Bill Livingston tore himself away from his beloved pole vaulters just long enough to opine that neither QB capitalized on the opportunity to claim the starting spot.

Yeah, yeah, yeah -- all I can say is that if it had been Brady Quinn who turned in the performance that Charlie Frye did last night, the local media would be falling all over itself anointing him as the team's savior. Unfortunately for Charlie, the party line on him is that he's yesterday's news, and that's how the story line will read for him until he definitively proves otherwise.

Sure, Charlie showed us that he hasn't lost all of his bad habits, although I'm more concerned about the decision-making at the end of the half than I am about the abysmal swing pass to Jerome Harrison that ended up going the other way. That play was ugly, but it's an execution problem and it's fixable. Whether Charlie's propensity to make bad decisions at key points in a game is fixable remains an open issue.

It's hard not to focus on the two brain-dead plays that Frye made in the first half that ended up killing two drives, but to do so to the exclusion of everything else he did in the team's first preseason game obscures some good news. Most importantly, Frye showed a lot more patience in the pocket last night than he ever did last season, and it resulted in several impressive deep completions that were only possible because he didn't run around like a scared jackrabbit.

Frye's overall numbers were very good, particularly when you take into account Romeo Crennel's strange decision to have his QBs alternate offensive series, thus making it hard for either of them to get into the flow of the game. For the night, Frye was 12 of 15 for 122 yards. He averaged 8.1 yards per attempt, and his overall QB rating was 100.6. Those are pretty impressive stats for a guy who has only been in camp for two weeks.

What makes them even more impressive is the team that he posted them against. The Chiefs defense is supposed to be one of the best in the league this season. Despite their continuing inability to punch the ball into the end zone, the Browns managed to drive 49 yards for a field goal against the Chiefs first unit (which only played the first quarter), and dominated the Chiefs statistically during the first half. The Browns were by no means good on offense, but let's keep things in perspective -- they were a hell of a lot better than they were in the first preseason game last year.

There are a lot of questions about the Browns, including whether Charlie Frye has what it takes to be a starting QB in the NFL, but dismissing his overall performance on the basis of two bad plays is a mistake. There's quite a bit of work to be done, but I'm not as down on Frye's performance as the media was. I thought he showed some improvement over last season, and came away from it thinking that he's got a chance to be decent.

I don't want to get carried away here, because there's no way anybody should look at the first five weeks of this season with anything but dread, but if Frye's decent, the Browns just might have a chance to be decent too.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Great Moments in Psychedelic Sports Reporting

Some days, I think that The Plain Dealer's sports section should only be read while listening to The Doors. On those days, the paper's stories and columns are so downright bizarre that the only plausible explanation is that the sportswriters have taken some magic mushrooms, and readers should be prepared to get their own psychedelic groove on in order to better appreciate their work.

Today was definitely one of those days.

I know that information can be murky when it comes to player injuries, and that sportswriters are frequently hustling to get their stories filed on a deadline, but you'd think that somebody at The Plain Dealer could manage to get the story straight on Willie McGinest's injury, at least when it comes to two stories about it that appear on the same page of the newspaper.

Readers of Mary Kay Cabot's "Browns Insider" column this morning learned that McGinest would be out at least six weeks following his back surgery, and at best "would be back in time for the Sept. 23 game in Oakland." However, Tony Grossi's "Training Camp Log: Day 13" that appeared immediately below Cabot's piece also noted McGinest's injury, but said that he "won't begin rehab for seven weeks."

So, according to The Plain Dealer, McGinest will either be nearly ready to return to the Browns or still lying flat on his back six weeks from now. Thanks, I'm much better informed now.

I then flipped over to Bill Livingston's column. That was a good move, because it turned out to be vintage Livingston. Instead of writing about the Browns, Indians, Buckeyes, Cavaliers, or even the Lake Erie Monsters, Livingston had another one of those odd, rambling columns in which he mentioned Abraham Lincoln, Paul Newman, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Bob Beamon--all before the fold.

I think the column eventually turned out to be about steroids, but the highlight to me was when Bill professed his love for track & field, and field events in particular, with this paragraph:

"I was the one who liked the field events more as a kid. The shot put, with men who were giants exploding across the ring and firing steel with a war cry; the long jump, with Bob Beamon pioneering unassisted flight before anyone ever heard of Michael Jordan; the pole vault, with airborne aces dueling on blue battlefields -- I loved them all."

There are a couple of things that really struck me about this paragraph. The first, of course, was how simply dreadful it is. Shot putters are "firing steel with a war cry?" Pole vaulters are "airborne aces dueling on blue battlefields?" Wow! That's incredibly baaad stuff!

The other thing that struck me about this paragraph is that Livingston cannot possibly have meant it. Nobody "loves" field events as Livingston purports to love them. Look, I threw the discus in college, and even I don't find field events particularly fascinating to watch. They are mildly interesting at best, which is why you see them only once every four years for about 30 minutes during the Olympics.

When I read stuff like this, I wonder what the PD's sports editor must be like. When I try to picture him, I see a cross between Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now and Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. You know, a combination of "The horror...The horror..." and "when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

I know bloggers are supposed to bitch about The Plain Dealer, and I've done my share of that. But in my heart of hearts, I've got to admit that it's one of my guilty pleasures, and mornings like this are the reason why.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Queer Eye for the Steeler Guy

You know that Steeler mascot in the hard hat who waves the Terrible Towel around at Pittsburgh games? Well, he's got a new name: "Steely McBeam." No, seriously, they really named him Steely McBeam.

I guess that must mean names like Rod Steel and Stiffy McPole were taken, huh? Let's face it, whoever came up with this name has watched a lot of gay porn in his day. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

Let no one say that the Pittsburgh Steelers organization is not innovative. NFL mascot names run the gamut from cuddly ones like "Roary the Lion" to tough-guy monikers like "Captain Fear the Buccaneer," but as the first team mascot whose name was inspired by the adult film industry, Steely definitely breaks new ground.

Deadspin points out the thing I love most about Steely -- the team had a fan vote, and this is the name that won. That's so excellent. The fact that the fans picked the name means one of two things: Pittsburgh fans are either complete idiots, or they have a highly developed postmodern sense of humor.

Based on prior experience attending more than 20 Browns v. Steelers games, I'm strongly leaning toward saying that they're complete idiots. On the other hand, if the fans vote to change the Pirates mascot's name from "Captain Jolly Roger" to "The Butt Pirate," I may have to rethink my entire opinion of them.

In a completely unrelated development, Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin announced the addition of five new members to the Pittsburgh coaching staff.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Deal With It, Barry

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Real Issue With Ryan Tucker

Ryan Tucker has decided to attempt to explain how he ended up violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. According to Tucker, he didn't do it to enhance his performance, but for legitimate medical reasons. Fine, whatever. The situation is what it is, and I guess the reasons don't matter all that much from the team's perspective. The bottom line is that Tucker's out for four weeks, and the offensive line's been dealt a bit of a blow.

This whole situation seems to have been a big surprise to the Browns, and I think that's very disturbing, because Tucker seems to have been well aware of his problems with the NFL long before he decided to share them with the Browns. The team made its plans and set its priorities assuming that Tucker was going to be back in the mix from day one. That wasn't the case, and Tucker knew it at the start of training camp. In fact, according to this story from The Orange and Brown Report, he knew about it quite some time before that. Yet Tucker seems to have opted to keep his mouth shut instead of letting the Browns know about his situation.

By choosing to do that, he put the entire organization in a tough spot at a particularly inopportune time. After a disastrous 2006 training camp, the improved offensive line was supposed to be the biggest positive story coming out of the Browns camp, and one of the key building blocks for the team's future. It may still turn out that way, but no thanks to Tucker, who blindsided the Browns and created exactly the kind of distraction that a 4-12 team doesn't need as it tries to regroup for a new campaign.

Incredibly, nobody seems to have asked Tucker why he decided to keep the team in the dark about the possibility of a failed drug test. To me, that's the real issue with Ryan Tucker. I really don't care about why he earned his suspension, but I'm real interested to hear why he decided to repay the compassion that the team showed to him during his illness by keeping his mouth shut about his situation until the NFL dropped this little bombshell on the Browns.

I've got a feeling that this is an explanation we're going to have to wait a very long time to hear.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Football Time Again

Know what I'm doing this weekend? Well, I'm not bumming out about Ryan Tucker's suspension and the impact it might have on what is still shaping up to be an improved Browns offensive line. It's not that Tucker's situation doesn't annoy me, it's just that something else a lot more fun is occupying my time this weekend.

I started things off after work on Friday by doing what I've been doing most weeknights for the last couple of weeks--standing around in the sweltering heat for two hours helping to supervise a bunch of kids and teenagers as they ran around a football field doing conditioning drills. I assisted the ones who got woozy from the heat and barked at the ones who weren't giving it their all. I handed out bottles of water to kids who forgot to bring their own, and occasionally swapped out a football helmet that didn't fit quite right for one of the half dozen or so that I've been driving around with in the back of my car for the last two weeks.

After drills were over, I headed over to the equipment room and spent a couple of hours helping the other coaches lay out the shoulder pads, jerseys, pants, pads, etc. that we distributed for three hours this morning. From there, it was off to the sporting goods store to pick up tape, ice packs, first aid supplies, new cones for drills, and a bunch of scrimmage vests to replace the ones that got destroyed last season.

Tomorrow, I'm going to be mapping out practice schedules for the first week of the season and putting together playbooks, last year's scouting reports, and instructions for the drills I'd like to run and then sending them around to the other guys I coach with. Then I'll go back to the sporting goods store to get some other things that I'll undoubtedly discover that I forgot today.

This may not sound like fun to you, but I'd rather do this than chase a golf ball any day of the week, and when my football team's season is gearing up to start, not even Ryan Tucker can mess up my mood.

I look forward to the start of the NFL season just like any other fan, but I've been coaching youth and junior high football for the past six years, and I look forward to the start of that season like kids look forward to Christmas morning.

Coaching football may mean staying up some nights until 3:00 a.m. doing work that I missed in order to get to practice on time, but it's a small price to pay for getting a chance to be 18 all over again every year. Even better, I get to teach kids how play one of the few remaining sports that doesn't either make them sell their souls to an elite travel team or insult their intelligence with an imbecilic "everybody is a winner" mentality.

Football is far from perfect. It's frequently cruel and like much else in life, is also often unfair. But for all of its faults, I can't think of another game that rewards effort the way that football does. You don't have to be a good natural athlete to be a respectable football player at the high school level. You can make yourself one by sheer hard work.

What's more, even if you will never become a starter, there's still a place for you on the team (thank you Hal Lebovitz, for helping to make it that way). There's a uniform for you to wear. There's a field for you to race onto on crisp Autumn Friday nights. There are teammates whom you'll never forget, and there's a crowd whose cheers will echo in your heart forever.

Most people never get to run onto a field and hear a crowd roaring for them, but that's the reward earned by every kid who runs, sweats, and pukes his way through "voluntary" conditioning workouts and two-a-days in the August heat in order to wear a football jersey. For a lot of kids, it's why they keep coming back to the game year after year, and for a lot of us, it's why we love to coach them more than just about anything else we do.

Ryan Tucker = Dope


Ok. Everyone stood by him when it turned out that he was a little nuts and missed a bunch of games. But this just takes the proverbial cake. This is the first time since Cody Risen was around that anyone had any hope whatsoever that the Browns would have a good offensive line. Well, the football gods know that the Browns can't abide any modicum of success, real or imagined. So, you knew something had to happen. Last year, it was Bentley's injury. This year, it's Tucker doping. As Billy Pilgrim liked to say, "so it goes."

I guess, like Billy, the Browns occasionally get unstuck in time too.

Friday, August 03, 2007

The earth shook a little.

Yeah, I think I felt it Wednesday evening when the Cubs snuck into first place with a 5-4 win, while the Brewers lost again. Sure, it's only a percentage points lead, but the Cubbies had been 8 1/2 out at the end of June. Sweet Lou has 'em playing serious ball.

And some serious ball is what the Tribe's going to need over the next 7 games. They're all on the road against the Twins and White Sox. Then, the Tribe comes home next weekened to play the hated Yankees.

August isn't going to be easy, because just as the Cubs made up a lot of ground, the Twins (5.5 back) or Mariners (2 back) could sneak past the Indians for the wild card spot. That's right, the wild card spot. I know most of the talk show hosts are talking about winning the division and how the Indians'll do in the playoffs, but there's no guarantee of getting there. It's not like Cleveland sports aren't premised on heartbreak and disappointment.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Randy's Tattoo

I feel a little bit like Page Six, but what the hell. Over the past few days, we've had a number of recurring hits on this site from people using search engines to find "Randy Lerner" and "tattoo". That odd little search made me curious enough to do a little searching on my own, and I've discovered that the owner of the Cleveland Browns is rumored to be sporting a tattoo of his favorite team's logo on his ankle.

Of course, I refer to the new logo of Aston Villa, the English Premier League soccer team that Lerner bought last year and that's recently been on a brief North American tour playing MLS clubs.

I've found a couple of sources for this rumor, including an Aston Villa message board (scroll down to the post from "forever claret and blue" at 5:47 p.m. on 7/29) and a somewhat ambiguous reference in an article in the online version of an English newspaper.

Is it true? Is Randy sporting Aston Villa ink? If so, was he sober when he got it? Is he going to put Brownie the Elf on his other ankle? Inquiring minds want to know.

I've got no idea whatsoever whether this is true, but I'd much rather write about this than ponder the depressing news from training camp that Orpheus Roye apparently needs knee surgery and will miss the entire preseason (at least).