Seriously, LeBron last night.
The Cavs looked a bit sluggish against Portland in the Rose Garden, not executing especially well on offense (LeBron "leading" the team with just 4 assists attests to that) and allowing Portland's shooters enough looks to maintain their advantage. With 4:03 left, trailing by 11, already missing two key players, with LeBron on a twisted ankle, and in a building where the home club boasted an 18-4 mark, I thought we might look ahead to finishing the road trip at 2-1 with a win in Seattle the following night.
Then, with the score 70-81 in favor of the Blazers, this happened (note that LeBron had already scored the Cavs' previous 6 points):
4:03 LeBron James makes 24-foot three point jumper (73-81)
3:44 Steve Blake misses 24-foot three point jumper
3:30 Drew Gooden makes 9-foot two point shot (75-81)
3:09 Brandon Roy misses 19-foot jumper
2:58 LeBron James makes 25-foot three point jumper (78-81)
2:40 Zydrunas Ilgauskas blocks Steve Blake's 5-foot running jumper
2:26 LeBron James makes 24-foot three point jumper (81-81)
There it is, an 11-point lead gone in just over 1:30. After some action takes the game to 4.9 seconds with Portland holding a one-point edge, we get this:
0:00 LeBron James makes two point shot (84-83)
0:00 Steve Blake bad pass (LeBron James steals)
0:00 End of the 4th Quarter
Two things I enjoyed about this sequence other than that they sealed a win for Los Caballeros:
1) LeBron went up and caught Blake's in-bound pass like he was playing a game of "up for grabs" or something.
2) The girl doing the postgame interview with LeBron asked him why it was so easy to get the final shot, a driving layup where he had to beat about three defenders by himself. LeBron sort of laughed and said "Well, it wasn't that easy." Indeed not.
Thursday, January 31
Seriously, LeBron last night.
Monday, January 28
I feel a bit of regret that here on the site we have barely mentioned the one Cleveland sports team currently in-season, the one defending a Conference Championship, and one that has now won 12 of 15 games after a strong road win over the Lakers. That's right, the Cavs.
After a sluggish start that featured some really uninspired basketball, the Cavs currently sit at 24-19. This puts them on pace for a 46-win season, which is a few off their mark from a year ago but still easily enough to qualify them for the postseason. If everyone stays healthy, it's reasonable to think they'll post 48 wins or so. The question is: what will that get them?
Hit the link over on the right to the NBA standings and sort by Conference, which is really the important grouping to consider for playoff positioning. It's unlikely they'll be able to run down either the Pistons or the Celtics for a top-two seed. Funny - I don't seem to hear nearly as much about Detroit as in years past but they're solid once again. Right now, I'd rather face the C's in a seven-gamer than the Pistons. Orlando seems to be the favorite for the Southeast title, but whether it's the Magic, Wiz, or Hawks (OK, maybe not) who end up hoisting that banner, the Cavs have a reasonable chance to end up third in the conference. Right now they're running even with Washington and Toronto, and neither of those teams are slouches, but I'm optimistic that Cleveland will earn one of the top four seeds and a first-round home series. Maybe we'll even get to dump Washington for the third straight year.
As for the Cavs recent winning ways: at risk of being a Coach Brown soundalike, I think they've been doing a few things better, especially executing better on defense late in games. They've won a lot of close games, evidenced by the fact that they are the only +.500 club in the entire Association with a negative point differential on the season. The four factors I see as key to their recent success have been:
1) LeBron's excellent play
2) The rebounding and defensive presence Varejao's return has brought along with continued steady post play from Ilgauskas
3) Role players stepping up game to game, including reserves like Devin Brown, Ira Newble, and Damon Jones
4) Late-game team defense and rebounding
There's not super-impressive statistical or analytical insight here, but I'm at least enumerating actual basketball-related items instead of meaningless pundit speak like "being aggressive," "grit," or whatever. Furthermore, to make sure I'm not one of those lousy sportswriters who doesn't bother to look things up, I just calculated some defensive PPG stats:
- First 28 games (12-16): 101.0 PPG allowed
- Last 15 games (12-3): 92.9 PPG allowed
Eight points a game is a big deal. They're also scoring more on their recent hot streak (98.9 PPG) than previously (96.4 PPG) but the defensive improvement is over 3X as great in terms of straight PPG. It's also worth noting that there hasn't been a discernible difference in recent quality of competition; the Cavs have been taking down quality teams like Dallas, San Antonio, and the Lakers, often doing it on the road to boot.
Note that I didn't include among their keys to success: shooting. These guys are still serious bricklayers - I look at the box score each game and notice the Cavs taking 10-15 more shots than the opposition at a lower percentage, which speaks to both their rebounding prowess and shooting troubles.
Three other things jumped out at me from the NBA's standings breakdown:
1) The West is once again a superior group of teams, based on point differentials and interconference play. The top ten teams out West all feature positive point differentials, while only five Eastern clubs can make that claim. Western teams are 138-112 against their Eastern foes, highlighted by Phoenix's sparkling 18-2 mark (which should have been 17-3 after Friday's contest at the Q).
2) The Cavs, oddly enough, are a pedestrian 12-12 against the weaker East and sport an impressive 12-7 mark against the West. The in-conference record is only good for sixth (overall they are tied with two other clubs for fourth), while the out-of-conference mark is second only to Boston's remarkable 12-0 run.
3) Away from Cleveland we have a similar story to last season; they're a little below .500 on the road (10-12 vs. 20-21 last year). However, their home record this year of 13-7 (.650) this year is still quite good but a significant step down from last year's excellent 30-11 (.731) showing. Protect the home court a bit better, and the Cavs will be right where they were last year.
Friday, January 25
I just want everyone to know about the fantastic luck I've had over the past few years when attending sporting events in person. This is getting ridiculous. Check me out:
Cavs: Have not lost with me present since LeBron joined the team. This includes at least five games (Bulls, 76ers, Lakers, Bobcats, Kings) that I can remember, and perhaps even more. Note that this is LeBron's fifth year with the club.
Indians: Last time I saw the Tribe lose was, I believe, at Milkey's bachelor party in early 2005, the one where I later ate an entire pizza and incapacitated myself for the night. Since then I the Tribe has won at least the past four I've been in the stands for, including road wins in Detroit and Baltimore.
Browns: Nick correctly pointed out that I don't have a winning streak with the Browns; the last time I went was their infamous 2005 Christmas Eve game against Pittsburgh. I do sport a 2-0 lifetime mark in non-Steeler games, though.
OSU Football: At least six straight wins in the horseshoe - this is one where you'd fully expect me to have success since OSU rarely loses at home. These six include two each over Penn State and Michigan, an easy win over Illinois, and a triple-overtime thriller to beat Philip Rivers and North Carolina State.
Albany sports: During my time in New York's state capital, I attended some minor-league events; two AHL games featuring the River Rats, two CBA games with the Patroons, and one AFL2 game with the Conquest. 5-0, of course.
Pitt Panthers: 2-0 basketball, 1-0 football. Ho hum.
Cleveland State Basketball: Hey, why not? Made my debut last night and they beat rival Valpo.
The streak doesn't seem to extend to Pittsburgh's pro clubs, as I left with modest losing streaks (maybe only 1 game) with both the Penguins and Pirates. Hell, maybe I should catch a game at Heinz Field :)
In my experience, there is a such thing as luck.
Wednesday, January 23
Here are two sports cliches that I have a problem with:
1) "If you're not getting better, you're getting worse."
No, you're not; you're staying the same. This phrase is tossed around quite frequently during off-seasons when trades, free agency, drafts, and the like are taking place. While it's a remote possibility that the other twenty or thirty-odd teams in any particular league improved while you stood pat, it's about as likely as an *N Sync revival tour. Let's all agree to never use this sentence again.
2) "It's not how you start, it's how you finish."
This was one of Jim Thome's favorites, and he often used this phrase in an attempt to excuse one of his lousy Aprils, for which he was notorious. While I understand what Jim was trying to say, he doesn't do so effectively. You can finish as strongly as you like, but if you fell too far behind at the beginning, you're still screwed. If this phrase was altered to read, "It's not where you start, it's where you finish," then I might be on board.
Tuesday, January 22
He was sitting out for one of three reasons. Either a) the doctors wouldn't let him back onto the field, b) he didn't feel like he could go, c) Norv Turner was keeping him out of the game. Scenario C seems extremely unlikely, and it's probably A or B. Can we please find something better to over-analyze until we know more?
On a sidenote, why weren't the Patriots coming after Phil Rivers more, especially after Tomlinson was yanked?
I was a bit disappointed, though not surprised, at the wildly negative response that Indians fans have given to the news that our Tribe will be renaming their ballpark "Progressive Field" next year, ending the fun and profitable 14-year "Jacobs Field" era. Fans grumble that the team is losing part of its history, that the owners are cheap, that fans won't ever stop calling it "The Jake," and BLAH BLAH BLAH. I'm of the opinion that one cannot form a logically coherent argument against this inevitable name change and that it's a sound decision for the organization.
The best and most levelheaded take on the situation was offered by Corey over at Mistake by the Lake Sporting Times. The key points he makes are:
- There was no reason to be surprised by the move since everyone knew that the Jacobs Field naming deal was expiring and that rights would be resold.
- People babbling about "tradition" simply don't want to go to the trouble of calling the park something else.
- You talk a big game about how you won't call it "Progressive Field," but...yes you will.
- It's not like fans will lose their fond memories of the '90's clubs just because the park has a new name, even if, as Corey comically suggests, they renamed it "The '95 Season Never Happened Ballpark."
- It was good business and a smart, easy decision for ownership to sell the name, and would have been foolish not to.
- It will be the same team you love in the same awesome stadium no matter what it's called.
All very good points. I'd like to elaborate a bit as well.
It's entirely unreasonable to expect the Tribe to have not sold the naming rights to a company. 18 of the 32 MLB teams have corporate names on their stadia (this number has not changed, since "Jacobs" was former owner Dick Jacobs' company's name, but expect it to increase in the coming years rather than decline), so it's not so much a trend anymore as it is simply how business is done. If you want to complain about the practice of corporations naming sporting venues in general, that's fine, but singling out the small-market Indians for renaming their relatively non-historical home is ridiculous. If the Red Sox renamed Fenway, that's be something else, but this park, glorious though it is and was in the '90's, is only 14 years old.
It's amazing how some people will somehow criticize the Dolans for being cheap, for "not spending enough" on players even though they had the second-best club in MLB last year, and then these same people whine about the Dolans taking essentially a free $60 million instead of leaving it on the table so their team's home could have the same name as the previous owner. Why any fan would wish for a small-market club not to take $3.8 million a year for naming rights is beyond me. There is no logic here. If the Dolan's didn't take an offer to rename the park, I would have been concerned about their business acumen. Now that they have done so, I can focus on the fact that...
Progressive Field is a good name! Lost in the knee-jerk reaction is the fact that this moniker beats the hell out of names like Minute Maid Park, Petco Park, and US Cellular Field. It's got a nice ring, it's a Cleveland-based company, and I am generally in favor of progressive political ideals. This is a pretty cool name, rivaled only by perhaps Great American Ballpark and Miller Park among commercially-named locations, and I think it will grow on people.
It's also way better than its neighbor "Quicken Loans Arena." Maybe it's because the Cavs are third banana in this town, maybe it's because "Gund" was a fairly unpleasant name to start with, but no one seemed to mind handing the Cavaliers' home court a name far less appealing than Progressive Field.
Finaly, I'd like to address those who complain about Progressive Field because Progressive Insurance recently laid off some workers. Those who make this argument are either unable or unwilling to understand basic business concepts. It's not like Progressive took all the money they were going to pay those employees and instead spent it on naming a baseball stadium out of corporate vanity. The $3.8 million they now have to pay the Tribe annually is a small slice of Progressive's annual advertising budget of $300 million. That's not a misprint. The only thing the two moves have in common is that Progressive's ownership decided that both would increase the company's profitablility, which is generally why businesses make decisions. They didn't rename Jacobs Field just to piss you off - they did it because they're going to get tons of exposure nationwide for just $3.8 million a year, and are the type of company that could reap a windfall from such exposure. Criticizing Progressive for sponsoring the Indians because they recently let some people go is a misguided argument.
Look, we'd all like to live in a perfect world where the Tribe would be raising their fifth straight World Series flag (and 10th in 16 years!) this year in beautiful Indians Field, where the home team has a $150 million payroll, hotdogs are free, and the Tribe always wins when it snows. But we don't live in that world, so we'll have to settle for a smartly-managed organization coming off a 96-win season, defending a division title, and playing in a gem of a ballpark with a pretty reasonable corporate name. What's the problem again? Go Tribe!
Monday, January 21
Apparently Tony Dungy will coach at least one more year for the Colts, and I ask, is anyone really surprised?
On a sidenote, I really like Dungy. TD seems like a genuinely good dude, and a guy who takes coaching seriously, but has his priorities in order, too. Have you ever heard a player say anything negative about Dungy or heard of locker room problems between Dungy and his players? They love the guy. Plus, he wears a sweater vest, which doesn't hurt one's coaching ability...
Saturday, January 19
PACKERS (-7) vs. Giants
Andy: Packers. I like the way the G-men have been playing, but the Pack have consistently shown that they can acquire and build a lead, especially at home, and especially in the cold. It seems that every time I picked against them I was wrong, so I'm riding the boys from Wisconsin.
Nick: Pack. The Packers are on fire ATS (against the spread), and like the Patriots and Brady, Favre and the Packers are nearly unbeatable at Lambeau when it's cold. I love this game, and it will set up a David and Goliath Super Bowl matchup that's certain to be the most-watched television event in United States history (your days in the top spot are numbered, M*A*S*H* finale).
PATRIOTS (-14) vs. Jaguars
Andy: This was -14 when I first posted it; it's since moved to -14.5. I find that a little odd - anyone I talk to is afraid to lay 14 in a championship game, and I thought maybe that would be the prevailing opinion and the line would drop to get more Patriots action. Nope. I'm still taking SD, banged-up or not.
Nick: Pats. I've been back and forth on this game all week, and it's too many points for me to feel comfortable putting money on it, but I'd take New England if I had a gun to my head. This would be a good line to buy down to -13.5, and alot of sportsbooks were giving -13.5 on Friday. The Brady-era Patriots are ridiculous in the playoffs, especially at home. Nobody's debating that the Patriots will win the game, it's just a question of how much they win by, and in the NFL, it's a bad idea to bet an underdog if you don't think they can win outright.
If you’re an Ohio State fan like Nick and I, and there’s a pretty solid chance that you are if you’re reading this, you probably can’t get enough of hearing about the football played in the Southeastern Conference (SEC). Newspapers, websites, radio shows - they can’t seem to say enough nice things about this confederation (pun intended) of college football teams, and it’s all so very exciting to hear and learn about. I’ve even started subscribing to The SEC Rocks Your Ass Digest. Fun fact: did you know that teams from this conference have defeated Ohio State University in the past two National Championship games? How exciting! Or that all the players on these teams have the speediest speed that ever sped across a football field? In fact, LeBron James wasn’t even driving when he got his 101 MPH speeding ticket - he was simply sitting in a chariot carried by SEC football players. It’s true! I love the SEC.
OK, enough silliness. I’m frankly tired of hearing about how great the SEC is, and I’m sure you are too. Get over yourselves. A bothersome extension of all this SEC-loving is this popular perception, both local and national, that OSU coach Jim Tressel is some sort of a failure for having fallen to SEC clubs in the BCS title game the past two years. This is ridiculous. All Tressel has done in the past six years is claim three Big Ten championships, one national title, three national title game appearances, five BCS appearances, three BCS game wins, and a 5-1 record against archrival Michigan. That’s fucking good. The idea that twice in a row finishing second out of the over 100 teams in the country somehow makes Tressel a bad coach deserving of all sorts of misguided Buffalo Football Buffaloes references is indefensible. The Buckeyes have never been so good in my lifetime and I love it.
What these two games have done, in addition to opening Tressel to underserved criticism, is rapidly increased the hyperbole that is now routinely applied to the SEC. Much of this hype, as I alluded to in the intro, has to do with their supposed advantage in team speed. Whatever. People just unquestioningly follow this line of thinking that kids from southern states like Florida and Georgia are somehow uniformly faster than kids from the Midwest and East Coast, as if that makes any sense. If SEC players are so fast, then how did Ted Ginn and Chris Wells outrun their Dixieland opponents these past few years? It’s annoying, and it’s lazy analysis. I’m not saying that the SEC isn’t the premier college football conference in the US - it is and I’m not saying that their players aren’t fast - they are. I’m just saying that I’ve heard just about enough about it, and have heard far too many commentators parrot this mindless “team speed” notion in lieu of bothering to offer any real football analysis.
Finally, why get so excited about the SEC? Sure, they have the best football teams in the country, but there is one huge drawback to these teams that analysts and journalists never have the courage to mention. Look at where these teams and schools are located: Alabama. Georgia. Louisiana. Mississippi. South Carolina. Arkansas. Tennessee. Kentucky. Florida. Notice something? That’s right, they’re all located in the southeastern United States. You can have all the team speed you want - you can have so much speed that you have to start including relativistic corrections in your recruiting pitches, but the stark, tragic fact remains that these teams are helpless to escape their unfortunate locations in the southern part of the United States. Poor kids.
Tuesday, January 15
That most recent round of Hall of Fame balloting was interesting enough, but readers of this site may have noticed the one major omission: NO CLEVELAND INDIANS!
This is probably a product of the fact that the Tribe was so terrible in the '70's and '80's that none of their players had anything resembling a Hall of Fame career. That's right, not even Joe Carter.
But certainly we had some players during the '90's (and today) deserving of enshrinement, so let's talk a little bit about them, what their Hall chances look like, and whether they'll go in with Chief Wahoo on their cap. I'll skip some players who we had for just a short period of time like Dave Winfield, Juan Gonzalez, David Justice, and Eddie Murray (who is already in as an O). You might also notice the lack of pitchers, which says as much about the construction of the '90's Tribe teams as anything. I also didn't include Sandy Alomar - I appear to have romanticized his career somewhat in my mind. It's hard for catchers to get in, that's for sure.
Finally, many of the stats I refer to I got from the fabulous baseball database baseball-reference.com, in particular their "HOF monitor."
There is absolutely no question that Ramirez will be elected to the Hall of Fame, probably on the first ballot. He has been, and continues to be, one of the greatest hitters of all time. Slam dunk. His seven years in Cleveland are essentially the equal of his seven as a Red Sock thus far, but by the time he finishes he will have played more years in Boston, won at least two World Series there, and complied more total numbers in Fenway than at Jacobs Field.
Chance of entry: 99.999%
Goes in as: Red Sock
Looking at the numbers, I was surprised to learn that Thome's career has been almost exactly as productive as Ramirez's at the plate. Additionally, Jim spent a few years at third base and many at first while Ramirez played and continues to play a below-average left field. Thome has posted a career OPS+ (a very good single-number metric for batting productivity rate) of 150, while Ramirez sits at 154. Thome's career OBP is .409, exactly the same as Manny's. Thome has 507 home runs, Ramirez 490.
baseball-reference has a thing at the bottom where they compare a player's batting career to other historical players; Ramirez is 3rd-closest to Thome and Thome is 2nd-closest to Ramirez (only Larry Walker intervenes). Manny strikes out less while Jimmy walks more - other than that, they are the same hitter. It would be difficult for you to convince me, unless Thome strikes out 700 consecutive times or something over the next few years, that Ramirez is Hall-worthy and Thome isn't.
Like Ramirez, Jimmy isn't done with professional baseballing either; he posted that very same outstanding OPS+ number just this past year, blasting 35 home runs and getting on base at a .410 clip. A few more years even close to that sort of production, and Jim should gain entry for sure.
Chance of entry: 90%
Goes in as: Indian
Seriously, do you remember those three years he played for us? He was ridiculous - a tremendous hitter and and excellent fielder, one of the best all-around players in the league. An career OPS+ of 116 from a second baseman, coupled with 10 Gold Glove awards, should make Robbie a shoo-in. Too bad he had more of his best years on the shores of Lake Ontario than he did next to Lake Erie.
Chance of entry: 85%
Goes in as: Blue Jay.
Well, here we're getting into a bit of a debate. Here's the easiest way for me to make an argument: direct comparison to Ozzie Smith. You can't have one without the other, and Ozzie is already enshrined.
Again referring to baseball-reference.com, the two shortstops are very, very similar in batting productivity. The Wizard has a career OPS+ of 87; Little O has posted an 84. Neither batter's numbers are very impressive, but neither player was especially known for his offensive skills. Omar has an edge in pretty much every raw number: batting average (I know, I know), OBP, SLG, HR, TB, 2B, and so on, but Smith played in a very hitter-unfiendly park in a relatively dead-ball era and thus gets a boost in OPS+. He also stole considerably more bases. My point is that their hitting is essentially a draw.
So is their fielding. It's not even worth it to use this space to discuss who was better and I won't even indicate a preference. Let's simply say that Vizquel and Smith were the two greatest shortstops ever, which is a fairly uncontroversial statement. Defense is thus a push as well. Ozzie=Omar.
Mr. Osborne Smith is a current resident of the Baseball Hall of Fame. If you believe that his election was just and fair (as I do), then you should favor the election of Mr. Vizquel as well, once he finishes off his splendid career. It's that simple. Considering that Vizquel played 11 of his 19 years as an Indian, including essentially all of his prime, it's also clear who he'll represent in Cooperstown.
Chance of entry: 75%
Goes in as: Indian
Look, I like Albert, and he had some absolutely dynamite seasons as a Tribesman, but it's unlikely that he'll be elected to Cooperstown. His OPS+ is really quite good, though below Ramirez and Thome, but he only played 10 seasons and has pretty low aggregate numbers. The HOF monitor has him in good company, but I think his relatively short career, plus his associated problems with media members, fans, and the law, will cost him with voters. I'm on the fence - he's a better candidate than even I realized now that I look at his numbers more carefully, but probably he'll fall short. Albert Belle was a really, really, good baseball player.
Chance of entry: 25%
Goes in as: Indian
Again, a player who I loved watching as a youth, and up through this year, but not one who stacks up to Hall of Fame standards. An OPS+ of 107 just isn't good enough for a centerfielder. Kenny did steal quite a few bases as well, and played a solid if not elite outfield, and I liked the way he nailed a pair of batting gloves up on his wall every time he stole a base. Once again, very good career, special player, but probably not a Hall of Famer.
Chance of entry: 10%
Goes in as: Indian
Well, that was fun. Hopefully I can write this article 10 years from now and talk about Victor Martinez, CC Sabathia, Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, and others going to Cooperstown with Tribe caps on their heads, crooked ones in CC's case. See you then!
Sunday, January 13
The voting is in for the 2008 Baseball Hall of Fame class, and Cooperstown will have just one new member this year: relief pitcher Rich "Goose" Gossage.
I'm alright with this. Gossage is widely considered to be a worthy entrant, both by writers whose opinions and analysis I respect, as well as members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, the people who actually get to vote on the players. Click that link to their website one time and tell me if you would trust those fellows' judgment on anything, ever again. I didn't think so.
While Gossage earned entry, there were as always a few notable players who did not get in, such as Jim Rice, Andre Dawson, Bert Blyleven, Tim Raines, and Jack Morris. From what I have gleaned of these gentlemen and their careers, Rice is borderline at best, Dawson no way, Morris no way, Blyleven legitimate, and you could make a good case for Raines. In other words, no real glaring mistakes, despite what a few oddballs might argue (especially in Morris' case).
The thing I have enjoyed the most about the Hall balloting is the plethora of material it has given the wonderful site firejoemorgan.com to write about. It seems like every two-bit sportswriter who cast a ballot has since written a column in their local daily where they sheepishly/brazenly defend the obviously stupid decisions they've made. Older writers tend to be worse at this - voting for guys based on "grit" and fond memories rather than actual qualification. It's amazing - these men are professionals, and they are fully aware that they're selecting players for stupid reasons (playing on bad knees, having a good W-L record, being friends with the writer, etc.), and yet they keep on doing it and then writing lengthy pieces semi-explaining their dumb decisions. Many of them seem either incapable of or disinclined to do any research whatsoever, relying almost entirely on gut feeling. Here's a new idea: vote for only qualified candidates, then defend your well-reasoned selections and omissions with facts and analysis. No one in the BBWAA seems interested in this approach, and that's why FJM has had such a feast over the past week. I urge you to take a look at some of their articles carving up bad baseball writers making stupid HOF arguments.
While I'm at it, let's take a look at the complete balloting for the 2008 class. Who the hell voted for Todd Stottlemyre? Shawon Dunston? Travis Fryman? If they're going to bother to have this election process, and I still think they should, these voters should be held accountable for such inane decisions. It is not an exaggeration to say that I could do a better job than many BBWAA members.
Finally, anyone who doesn't vote for Rickey Henderson next year is going to have to answer to me. And Rickey.
Thursday, January 10
PACKERS (-8) vs. Seahawks
Andy: My least favorite game of the week. Seattle is a different club on the road; 7-1 in the Emerald City and just 3-5 away from noisy Qwest Field. I've been underestimating the Pack all year, and playing in the cold for Favre gives them a huge boost. But eight points? I wouldn't bet this one either way, but I think I'm going to take the Packers here.
Nick: Seahawks. The Seahawks have experience coming out the yin-yang, a short passing game that won't be hurt by lousy weather, and as great a job Mike McCarthy did this season, I'll take Holmgren in the playoffs. Seattle just might win this game outright, and I love them with eight freebies.
PATRIOTS (-13) vs. Jaguars
Andy: Jags. Too many points.
Nick: Jaguars. This is the one game I probably won't touch this weekend. I don't think the Jags are as good as they're being made out to be, and they might be banged up this weekend. Everyone's gushing over David Garrard, but his mistakes let Pittsburgh climb back into the game. That said, I can't give 13 in the playoffs, and I would consider betting this game if the line gets up to 14.
COLTS (-8.5) vs. Chargers
Andy: Colts. With the big lines this week, I'm mostly content to take the road dogs, but I like the Colts at home in the playoffs playing a possibly Antonio Gates-less Charger club coached by Norv Turner.
Nick: Colts. The Chargers looked really bad last weekend, and the Colts will torch them. I locked myself into this game on Sunday night and bought down to -7, just to play it safe. This game is my lock of the week.
COWBOYS (-7.5) vs. Giants
Andy: Giants. This is my favorite game on the board - lots of uncertainty around the Cowboys and the Giants are playing well and with confidence, plus they're an outstanding road team. Dallas may win, but I'm happy to have the TD in my pocket.
Nick: Cowboys. Another game that I bought down to -7, but I'm nervous about this one. The bottom line is I still don't have a ton of faith in the Giants, Eli's due to lay an egg, Owens will be back, and teams with a bye win at an alarming rate. I think Dallas will get it done.
Maybe it’s because his performance is compared to the likes of Dwight Clark, Butch Davis, and Carmen Policy, but at this point in time, it sure seems like Phil Savage has done a remarkable job overhauling the Browns roster over the last three off-seasons. Savage’s job is far from finished, but if you compare this roster to that which Savage inherited after Butch Davis’ “resignation” during the 2004 season, the differences are astounding. Savage has infused the roster with talent, especially on the offensive side of the football, and the Browns now boast the best offense their fans have seen in at least the last two decades. In a way, Savage has rewarded Browns fans for their public outcry which ultimately saved his job at the end of the 2005 season.
But last Thursday some unpleasant news broke: the Ravens, the Browns’ biggest rival with the exception of the team defeated by Jacksonville on Saturday, had been granted permission to interview Cleveland’s offensive coordinator, Rob Chudzinkski, as a possible replacement for Brian Billick. While the Browns received vastly superior play on offense from a multitude of positions, Chudzinski was instrumental in the Browns offensive renaissance. To see Chudzinski leave would be a huge psychological blow to the team and the fan base, both of whom are just starting to get used to winning. But to see Chud bolt for Baltimore and to be forced to face him twice each season during the foreseeable future, well, that would simply add insult to injury.
But as he’s done in the past, Phil Savage proved himself far more cognizant of the team’s priorities than previous regimes, as he moved quickly on Monday to ink Chudzinski to a two-year contract extension that cemented the offensive coordinator’s future in Cleveland. In addition to merely keeping Chudzinski from departing C-Town, Savage likely offered him the extension with an eye towards Chud eventually succeeding head coach Romeo Crennel, who will turn 61 this June.
In a Wednesday morning press conference, Savage announced that he would address contract extensions for Derek Anderson, Romeo Crennel, and Jamal Lewis. There’s no debating that retaining Lewis for at least one more season would be advantageous, so it won’t be discussed in this column. However, Derek Anderson and Romeo Crennel have been lightning rods this season both for positive and negative sentiments, and Savage’s comments regarding those two gentlemen are sure to spark some spirited debates.
First, let’s take a look at head coach Romeo Crennel. Crennel just finished year number three of a five-year, $11 million contract signed back in 2005. With two years remaining on his original deal, signing Crennel certainly is not imperative, and letting him coach for one more season under that preexisting contract won’t “send the wrong message” or mark him as a “lame duck.” But the trend in the NFL, whether it’s right or wrong, has been to reward coaches for good seasons with contract extensions.
This Crennel contract situation has sparked a fierce debate among both fans and media members. While some, myself included, don’t see Crennel being particularly well-suited to the role of head coach, just as many vehemently defend him. But this state of affairs shouldn’t be viewed in that context, because even if Romeo Crennel is the right man for the job, that’s not why his contract extension appears imminent.
Crennel’s contract extension was probably sealed when Chudzinski signed his extension on Monday. Think about it: an offensive coordinator under contract for two more years than the head coach? It’s unheard of. And rather than rock the boat, Savage is going to make the smart move by throwing a bone in Crennel’s direction in the form of a contract extension, while at the same time quelling rumors that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” before they can even begin.
A contract extension for Crennel will leave legions of dissatisfied fans grumbling that the Browns will never be rid of the coach, but that’s not necessarily accurate. In the event of a future nosedive during which the Browns feel the need to rid themselves of Romeo, such an extension will not deter them from doing so. True, the Browns would be forced to pay out the duration of Crennel’s contract, but coach’s salaries don’t count against the NFL’s salary cap, so the only place the Browns would feel the sting would be in owner Randy Lerner’s pocketbook.
Plus, Crennel’s current salary is relatively inexpensive ($2.2 million per year, prorated) by NFL head coach’s standards, and it’s unlikely that Crennel’s contract extension will involve an exorbitant boost in yearly salary. There’s also precedent here; when Butch Davis “resigned” (he quit before he would be fired) during the disastrous 2004 campaign, Lerner paid Davis the balance of the two-year contract extension he had signed the previous January. Furthermore, Davis was making $4 million per year when he was fired, about double what Crennel banked this season, so the financial ramifications of sacking Crennel wouldn’t be much of a hindrance. On that front, fans can rest easy; if the Browns need to can Crennel, a longer contract won’t prohibit such a resolution.
"We have a couple of different options for Derek. We're more apt to want to do something with Derek that would take him beyond the 2008 season. We want to go into next season with both of our quarterbacks, plus Ken Dorsey intact. We want to make sure we stay strong at that position for at least one more year."
-Phil Savage, 01.08.08
On to the other headliner of the Savage press conference: Derek Anderson. Regarding the Browns’ incumbent starter at quarterback, Savage stated very decisively that the Browns want to head into next season with both Anderson and Brady Quinn on the roster. Many, myself included, have speculated that the Browns will try to trade either Anderson or Quinn (probably Anderson) this off-season in an attempt to acquire additional picks in this April’s NFL Draft. The Browns’ problems with their defensive front seven have been well-documented, and adding extra first day draft picks, especially a first rounder (the Browns traded their 2008 first round choice to Dallas to select Quinn), would go a long way in helping the Browns shore up their shaky defense. But Savage said Anderson is staying, right?
I’m not convinced, partially because a vote of confidence in the NFL is so often counterintuitive, and also because Phil Savage has played the smokescreen game before to some critical acclaim. During the 2006 draft, Savage duped Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome into thinking the Browns would select Haloti Ngata if the Ravens didn’t swap picks (Cleveland was #12, Baltimore was #13) with them. Savage’s trickery netted the Browns an extra sixth round pick.
Last spring, a scheming Savage led what seemed like the entire football-watching world to believe that the Browns were sweet on both Adrian Peterson and Brady Quinn, and that one of the two would hear his name called with the number three pick. But for weeks, Savage had really been thinking that unless something went haywire during the first two picks or someone blew the Browns away with a trade offer, Wisconsin tackle Joe Thomas was his man. Mission accomplished.
Is Anderson the guy? Frankly, it’s difficult to tell. Personally, I’m very lukewarm on DA; he can probably be a serviceable starter for many years and he certainly has a first round arm, but it’s his sixth round brain that’s worrisome. Outside of a select few in Berea, nobody knows what Savage really thinks of Anderson, or perhaps more importantly, the minimum he would have to receive in a trade to send Anderson elsewhere.
Savage’s opinion of Anderson will eventually be revealed, because at some point this off-season, the Browns will be forced to make a decision regarding the former Oregon State Beaver’s future in Cleveland. If nothing else, it should make for good television. Regardless of what happens, Phil Savage built up some well-earned political capital over the last year, and until there’s any indication that fans should do otherwise, they should Savage’s decisions.
Sunday, January 6
Friday, January 4
While the entire NFL was surprised by Derek Anderson’s success, no team was more astounded by Anderson’s sudden emergence than the Browns. Anderson posted gaudy numbers in 2007; 3,787 yards passing and 29 touchdowns, statistics which dwarf the accomplishments of other expansion-era Browns quarterbacks.
Of the numerous expansion-era Browns signal callers, only Tim Couch has broken the 3,000 yard barrier (3,040 yards in 2001). To find a Browns quarterback who threw more than 29 touchdown passes, one must look back to 1980, when Brian Sipe threw for 30 scores and over 4,000 yards. Browns fans have not watched a quarterback enjoy this kind of statistical success in the last two decades, yet here we are, discussing the possibility of trading Derek Anderson this off-season so that the keys to the offense can be handed to a red-shirted freshman quarterback who has only thrown eight regular season passes. On paper, it looks like lunacy.
But I don’t want to dive into the DA versus Quinn debate, at least not yet. No, instead I’d like to take a look at a few events that took place during the time frame of the Browns’ final pair of games. These events, some of which were very unlikely, may have tipped the scales in Quinn’s favor.
Browns at Bengals: The Anderson Meltdown
The Browns had a chance to clinch their first playoff birth since 2002, and all they had to do was sink the rudderless Cincinnati Bengals. But the Browns choked, losing in the Queen City 19-14 due almost solely to a catastrophic showing by Derek Anderson. DA threw four interceptions, two of which gave the Bengals laughably short fields which resulted in touchdowns. Prior to this game, some of the more sophomoric Cleveland sports talk show hosts were ready to canonize Anderson, as they mocked anyone who even alluded to Quinn getting a shot at the starting job in ‘08.
Derek Anderson was faltering somewhat, even prior to the Bengals game. Anderson hadn’t had a rating of over 100 since week eight (at St. Louis), defenses were starting to figure him out, and his play had cost the Browns one game (at Arizona) and contributed heavily to the Browns’ second half collapse in Pittsburgh. And if one objectively reviews the game video from the entire season, even the most ardent Anderson supporter would have to concede that DA consistently left points on the field. This is witnessed in the fact that the Browns never blew out an opponent, even in games that the Browns controlled from start to finish (Houston, New York Jets, San Francisco).
That said, the Cincinnati game was the most costly loss for Derek Anderson; he missed an opportunity to lock up a playoff spot, he missed an opportunity to possibly cement himself as the Browns’ starting quarterback next season, and he probably cost himself millions of dollars in the event that another team tries to sign him or trade for him (signing him to a long-term deal afterwards).
It was only one bad game, and everyone’s entitled to one, but for many Browns fans, that game allowed Derek Anderson to make a complete transition from hero to goat. While Anderson is far from a finished product, the Cincinnati game glaringly exposed two of his largest flaws; inaccuracy and making lazy reads, bird-dogging receivers. The door had been opened for Brady Quinn.
Browns Re-Sign Ken Dorsey
The Wednesday after the Bengals game, the Browns gave third string quarterback Ken Dorsey a three-year contract extension. This started speculation that the Browns were essentially re-committing to Quinn, as Dorsey had been given the mantle of being Quinn’s “mentor” during the pre-season.
Truth be told, as a number three quarterback with vast knowledge of OC Rob Chudzinski’s system, Dorsey was also instrumental in Derek Anderson’s development. But there’s little doubt that Dorsey is probably more important to Quinn than Anderson, both personally and professionally, as Quinn once described Dorsey as “a mentor, [and] a friend”. It was Quinn, not Anderson, who issued a public plea for Dorsey’s return after the Browns waived him in their last wave of training camp cuts. While it was hardly a public vote of confidence in Quinn, re-upping with Dorsey may have been an indicator that the Browns were starting to lean in Brady’s direction.
Quinn Gets His Chance
Following a week of speculation on whether or not Quinn would play, Romeo Crennel foolishly resolved to play Derek Anderson for the entirety of the Browns’ final game against San Francisco, taking imprudent risks with the health of the quarterback who would have invariably started had the Browns qualified for the playoffs. Frankly, playing all of the starters for the vast majority of the game was lazy and uncreative thinking on Crennel’s part.
Quinn would get his chance anyway, and whether it was fate or dumb luck, a mid-second quarter injury to Derek Anderson’s throwing hand allowed Quinn to lead the Cleveland’s final drive of the half. Quinn played as well as anyone could have hoped, leading the Browns deep into San Francisco territory and ending the drive with a field goal. In fairness, Quinn, who was victimized by three drops (including two in the end zone), played much better than his stat line (3-8, 45 yards) indicates.
Quinn played as well as the Browns could have hoped, which has been Quinn’s modus operandi since he signed his contract. On and off of the field, Quinn has done everything the Browns have asked. During the pre-season, Quinn moved the offense effectively whenever coach Crennel called his number. And during the regular season, Quinn never complained about holding a clipboard behind Charlie Frye or Derek Anderson. Actually, Quinn has made most of his noise in the marketing department, serving as a pitchman for sports supplement giant EAS and starring in a goofy ad for Subway.
What It All Means
Nobody’s saying that Anderson is garbage; he’s a pretty good fit for Chudzinski’s offense and he can probably be an average or above average quarterback in Cleveland for years to come. The question for Phil Savage and friends is whether or not they have more confidence in Brady Quinn, and whether or not they want to bank on Quinn’s vast, albeit untapped, potential.
It seems unlikely to me that the Browns will start next season with Anderson and Quinn on the roster. To do so risks a schism in the locker room, a media circus, and ignores an obvious opportunity for the Browns to trade one quarterback this off-season to upgrade their lackluster defensive front seven.
So what will happen? To me, it looks like the Browns will trade Derek Anderson and install Quinn as the starter, and it looks like the three events I highlighted above have greased the wheels for such a decision. The Browns have too much invested in Quinn to give up on him. The investment isn’t so much financial (Quinn’s contract is very manageable), but rather in terms of draft choices and philosophy. Phil Savage staked his reputation and quite possibly his career in Cleveland to Brady Quinn when he traded up to select him in last April’s draft. And for better or worse, those investments will keep Savage in Quinn’s corner.
Thursday, January 3
It just won't be the same without the Brown and Orange. Well, it will be exactly the same as the past four years, but you know what I mean.
SEAHAWKS (-2.5) vs Redskins
Andy: The Redskins are playing hard for their fallen comrade, but the Seahawks have been here and are tough at Qwest Field, so I'm taking the 'Hawks.
Nick: Seahawks. The Redskins are frauds.
STEELERS (+2.5) vs Jaguars
Andy: A tough one here, with the road team favored, but Jacksonville looks like a solid, durable playoff competitor so I'm taking them.
Nick: Jacksonville. I hate giving points on the road, but Pittsburgh's limping into the postseason.
BUCS (-3) vs Giants
Andy: I'm weird with the Bucs - I always say I think they're not good, but I pick them a lot. Well, it's playoff time, and I still don't think they're good. Giants.
Nick: Giants. Time to break that playoff losing streak. The Giants are pretty talented, the Bucs aren't.
CHARGERS (-10) vs Titans
Andy: The Chargers are definitely a better team and I think they'll win, but on coaching matchup alone I'm taking the Titans and the points here.
Nick: Chargers. The Chargers are rolling, and they're my dark horse pick in the AFC.