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.