Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Succeeding at the Pro Level

(I still write for the Orange and Brown Review, a fan magazine owned by FoxSports. Below is a recent column I wrote about what the Browns have to do before next season.)
As I am writing this article the Browns are nearing the end of their season, I just watched a tough overtime loss to the Phoenix Cardinals. As the case has been most of the season, the offense struggled as the defense played solid. Fans are once again disappointed in another losing season.
Last month I talked about football and the high school and college level, and this month I want to talk about what it takes to succeed on the pro level and what the Browns need to do to be competitive in 2012. The highest level of football is, of course, the NFL. Teams, for the most part, are owned by extremely rich men, and coached by very smart coaches. The NFL gives us a game, which is incredible, with very fast and athletic players taking the field every Sunday.
But many of these men who own the teams have found it easier to become a billionaire than to be a consistently winning NFL owner. There is not a business school model to be a winner in the NFL. Yes, even the losing teams each year make incredible amounts of money. But to win that championship can be an elusive thing.
And don’t forget it is still a game, that same game it still shares with the college level all the way down to CYO and Pop Warner leagues. A game that has so many intangibles, and is played with a ball that sometimes takes funny bounces.
The NFL is a player driven league, where the players are the best of the best. They are big, quick, fast, and can jump. They are instinctive, aggressive, and many of them hate to lose. Since the Browns have been back the team has pretty much been a disaster, and much of that can be attributed to not having enough good players, and fingers can be pointed in many directions. The current Mike Holmgren regime is the best that has ever been in place since the team has come back, and if left alone they will bring success to the team.
When Holmgren and Company came on board two winters ago they found a team missing most of its parts. There was Josh Cribbs, Joe Thomas, Phil Dawson, and a few maybes. They knew the team had to be built with young talent through sound drafting, and their first two drafts have been outstanding. Joe Hardesty, T.J. Ward, Alex Mack, Phillip Taylor, Jabaal Sheard, and Jason Pinkston, are amongst the players that have brought on board. At one time this year they started nine players drafted in the last two years.
They drafted mostly for defense first because that would make the team competitive sooner. What has made this past season so frustrating is they have been in so many games, and that has been because of the defense. One thing that wasn’t done was throw money for over priced free agents to be stop gap players. The Browns have drafted young kids and have let them play, to prove their worth to the team.
General Manager Tom Heckert is on record as saying that after two drafts centered on building the defense, this year the draft will be about the offense. He has also stated, now that a fair amount of pieces are in place, it might be time to add a few free agents.
I’m as unsure of the quarterback position as much as the next guy. I’ve rooted for Colt McCoy all season and seen him at different times look very good and very bad. But I do know, at least I’d like to think so, that Mike Holmgren has made his decision. Let us hope that whomever it is behind center next season, whether it’s McCoy or not, will lead the Browns to big things.
I have been on record in this column that the Browns will be competitive next year, and I still stick by that. I have much faith in the Browns front office, and their drafting track record has been outstanding.
For as inconsistent the offense has been this season, several important pieces are in place. The offensive line is both very young and very good. Joe Thomas and Alex Mack play like first round draft picks, Jason Pinkston has proved he is a player. Shawn Lauvao has shown improvement. Hopefully Eric Steinbach will return next year. I will be very surprised if the Browns don’t sign at least one solid free agent lineman to add to this group.
This group has shown it can do the two things an NFL line needs to do to be successful, run the zone play and protect the quarterback.
As the season is winding down Peyton Hillis is finally playing like the Peyton Hillis of last year. Let us hope he has things together on and off the field for next season. His absence from the team allowed Chris Ogbonnaya to show some good things. Montario Hardesty is still a question mark, but having three guys this good for one spot is a plus. The team could use a blocking back a la Lawrence Vickers, and maybe that might be addressed in the off-season also. They drafted Owen Marecic this year to fill that role but I have yet to see enough of him to see what he can do.
The tight end spot is solid; let us hope Ben Watson comes back next year from his concussions. We are in the era of the tight end in the NFL, and as I wrote several months ago the Browns have a good group of them. Let us hope the young guys, Evan Moore, Alex Smith, and Jordan Cameron, keep improving.
The wide outs have been much maligned this season, and with leading the league in drops must of the criticism is deserved. However, if you threw in a legitimate home run receiver or two in with this group of guys you would have a solid group. I have visions of Justin Blackman from Oklahoma State in brown and orange. I have a feeling the Browns first draft pick will be a receiver that can stretch the field.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Add another lineman, maybe a fullback, go out and get a top speed threat, and resolve things at quarterback. If only it was that simple, but based on the last two years you have to have faith in Holmgren and Heckert.
The other top priority for next year is to get the special teams back to where they were. This season was a mess of bad snaps and bad kick coverage. There should be no excuse for this. You still have Phil Dawson and Josh Cribbs, build around them once again. This is very doable.
The Browns can also add some depth to the defense, especially some speed and athleticism at outside linebacker. Even the most pessimistic fan has to be impressed with how well a switch to a four-man line went, with the Pro Bowl caliber play of Ahtyba Rubin and the drafting of Taylor and Sheard.
The teams that have dominated the NFL the last fifteen years have had solid defenses, depth on both sides of the ball, special teams that don’t make big mistakes, and offenses that have playmakers. Even with a disappointing record, the Browns showed this year they can play with those teams for three quarters. Hopefully with another good draft and some wise free agent signings the Browns can finally play a whole game each and every week no matter who the opponent is.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Billy Joe Shaver @ the Beachland Ballroom, 2 December 2011

I went to the Browns game last Sunday and they were advertising on the score board for a Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw concert for next summer at the football stadium. I’m sure tickets won’t be cheap, and most people will sit somewhere where they will need binoculars to see the show, or just watch it on a large video screen. Parking around the stadium will be fifteen to twenty bucks, and beers will be in the eight dollar range. All that for what too many people think is real country music.
It’s too bad, because for a quarter of the price admission and beer at neighborhood prices they could have gone to the Beachland on December 2 and saw real country music from one of the last of the original Texas outlaws, Billy Joe Shaver. The three hundred or so that were in attendance got to see a great singer/songwriter who at the age of 72 can still get it done. He spent the night given the audience what they wanted to hear, playing one great song after another, most of them originally hits not for himself but for guys with names like Waylon, Elvis, Willie, and Johnny. He opened with “Fast Train to Georgia,” followed it with “Honky Tonk Heroes,” and never looked back. The highlight for me was “I’m Going to Live Forever,” which was originally done by the Highwaymen on their second album. Almost every song came with a story, some happy and funny and some sad but true, and Shaver told each one like he was telling it for the first time.
If you like the genre of music now called Outlaw Country, which by the way is real country music not that corporate country that passes itself off as the real thing today, you should check out locals California Speedbag who opened the show. Good original songs, a couple of quality covers, by a five piece outfit of veteran musicians.
As always, there are a lot of great things coming up at the Beachland Ballroom, check them out at www.BeachlandBallroom.com.