Tuesday, January 3

The Downtown Report: 2011 in Cleveland Sports

That was tough.

By "that," I mean the past 12 months of sports for those of us who support the three Cleveland pro teams and the Ohio State Buckeyes. As I wrote a month ago, this past 365 was the worst collectively for our clubs in the past 25 years with the exception of 1991, a year that 2011 paralleled quite closely. I'm not looking forward to 2031 one bit.

But just because doesn't mean we didn't claim a whole lot of championship hardware doesn't mean we didn't have our share of fun moments in 2011. OK, maybe not the Browns. But generally speaking, a 47-year pro championship drought hardens you to the realities of losing and helps you develop a skill for finding joy in smaller victories. We've got a long way to go before we turn into those steeler fans who can't deal with a team that *only* wins 11 games in a season.

Let's look back on some of the good times we managed to eke out in 2011 and look ahead to a better 2012.

The Indians finished 2011 wth an 80-82 mark, second place in the AL Central but a whopping 15 games back of first-place Detroit. But as far as mediocre seasons go, this was one heck of a fun campaign. The Tribe stormed out of the gate, peaking at a stunning 30-15 before falling back to earth and eventually being overtaken by the Tigers (but not the White Sox - ha!) Cleveland was in the division hunt until late August, certainly more than most expected from the young Wahoos.

As I wrote back in October, the Indians' 2011 was filled with magic moments. I'd encourage you to read that article and see if you don't get a little wintertime Tribe fever. Think about the big wins:
- The early sweep of Boston
- The 14-game home winning streak
- The sweep of Detroit with three straight come-from-behind wins including Carlos Santana's iconic grand slam
- Hafner's walk-off home run against Seattle and walk-off Slam against Toronto
- Sweeping Pittsburgh
- Walk-offs from rookies Cord Phelps and Jason Kipnis
- LaPorta salvaging Tribe Weekend with a walk-off
- A July 4 win over the Yankees
- Santana walking off again for victory #80.

Lots of memorable moments for a season that ended up pretty close to .500. It's hard to tell what to expect from the 2012 bunch, but as presently constructed I don't see them besting that mark by much. Masterson and Jimenez should anchor the top of the rotation, but how effective can Carmona, Lowe, Tomlin, and the rest be? Will the Bullpen Mafia maintain their high level of play and avoid the bullpen volatility that seems to strike the Indians every other year? Can they fill their hole at 1st base and get enough production from the lineup? Can Sizemore and Hafner stay healthy?

Some of the questions will probably resolve themselves positively and others negatively, so I see the Indians probably treading water in 2012. Even if that is the case, let's hope that campaign is filled with as many special moments as this one was.

Back in January, I wrote that, "Nothing about the Browns' Pat Shurmur hire makes me especially optimistic," and I wish I hadn't been so right. Just prior to the season, I wrote a scathing assessment of the Browns in an email to a steeler fan buddy of mine. Let's take a look at how I did:

The Browns are going to suck this year.

The only reason they seem like they might be OK is they have a weak schedule, but as I wrote on the blog recently, strength of schedule is pretty much a mirage in the NFL. Last year we opened with KC and TB and those looked like easy W's and then both of them ended up winning 10 games, including one each against the Browns of course.
I stand by this. Teams that looked like potential W's, like Oakland, Tennessee, Cincy, San Fran, and Houston, all turned out to be playoff-caliber teams, and clubs we expected to be tough outs like Pittsburgh and Baltimore turned out to be exactly that. The four teams we did beat have a combined winning percentage of .313, which is terrible.

We hired our head coach Pat Shurmur mostly because our team President used to coach with his uncle Fritz. His biggest accomplishment: O-coordinator on a team that's won 8 games in the past 2 years.
The opening remark there is a glib overstatement, of course, but the nepotism angle didn't sit well with me then or now. Shurmur's work this year has been universally panned, as he's basically looked befuddled and lost all year and shown no indication of above-average leadership. There'll be at least another year for Paddy to prove my concerns unfounded, but signs are not good.

McCoy has some promise, but he's still green and will probably make tons of mistakes, like any young QB with no weapons, running game, or protection.
I wouldn't change one word of this, though I failed to anticipate he'd miss three games after a cheap shot from a player who deliberately violates league rules in an effort to deliver concussions to opponents.

Hillis is guaranteed to be hurt by midseason. He runs too hard and the Browns give him the ball too much. He also has giant arms and fumbles too much. He's a total one-year wonder - anyone who took him in fantasy should be regretting it. Unfortunately we have no other decent backs, and we got rid of our excellent fullback Vickers too.
Um...could I have gotten this any more right?

Joe Thomas' signing was monumentally stupid; he was below-average last year and is probably on the decline, so we lock him up for the most money of any lineman for seven years. We'll do the same for Hillis, I'm sure. Steinbach is hurt. I have no idea who we will fill out the line with. McCoy will be running for his life all year.
Mostly right, though I was too hard on the Thomas signing. I do think we overpaid for #73, but he is a solid, dependable player. My misgivings about the line were well grounded.

Tight end is actually a strength. WR is pathetic though; unheralded rookie Greg Little is probably our #1. Don't expect many points from Cleveland this year.
Check, check, check.

Kick return was a strength for us, and now the NFL effectively banned kick returns. Our punter tore his achilles in training camp and will miss all year. Phil Dawson is awesome at least.
The rule change didn't take as big of a bite out of KR's as I thought, but Josh Cribbs hasn't been as electrifying in years past. Reggie Hodges' injury was worrisome, but Brad Maynard filled in nicely. I can't say enough good things about a punter who committed all of one touchback this year, and that on a weird bounce on a 63-yard kick into the wind. Phil Dawson is, indeed, awesome.

Our D will suck like it does every year. We switched to a 4-3 and don't have the personnel at all for it on the line or behind it. No depth whatsoever, and only two competent d-backs.
D was a little better than I anticipated, although they allow 150 ypg on the ground, 30th in the NFL. Taylor and Sheard were nice additions to the line, and D'Qwell Jackson had a remarkable bounceback campaign. But beyond #52 the 'backers are not strong, and the lack of depth in the secondary was correct and hurt by TJ Ward's absence.

Lucky to win 6 this year.
And......not lucky.

A preview of 2012 is a fairly futile exercise at this point, as we don't know who will be under center or how the draft will shake out. But you'll be able to knock me over with a feather if they improve the talent (and coaching) enough to get above .500 next year.

Where do I even start?

The basketball team had a fantastic season, cruising to a 32-2 mark and claiming their second straight Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles. They reached the Sweet Sixteen before suffering a heartbreaking loss to Kentucky in the Regional semis. Still, another banner year for the Buckeye hoopsters, who are currently ranked #2 in the nation.

Then there's the football program. Things started great with a thrilling Sugar Bowl win over Arkansas, then all hell broke loose. The suspensions. The departure of Jim Tressel. The self-imposed sanctions. The NCAA-imposed additional sanctions. The guy from Cleveland Strikes Back sending about 10000 psychotic anti-Luke Fickell hate tweets. It was a strange year.

It was, of course, a disappointing year, given the lofty expectations and recent track record of the Buckeye football program, as OSU went just 6-7, posted a losing record in conference play (only the sixth such season in the past 67 campaigns), dropped seven for the first time since '97 (1897), and lost to a school up north for the first time since 2003.

Yet even with all the turmoil and with a young team including freshman QB Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes pulled off a couple of signature victories. First was a 17-7 win in Champaign against then-#16-ranked Illinois, right on the heels of the soul-crushing loss in Lincoln. Notably, OSU claimed the Illibuck by completing precisely one pass.

Then there was the thrilling 33-29 win over #12 Wisconsin, puncutated by Miller's amazing 40-yard go-ahead TD strike to Devin Smith. If nothing else (and there wasn't much), that play made the whole 2011 season of Buckeye football worth it.

Figgs has expertly laid out what the near future holds for Ohio State athletics, so I'll defer to his wisdom there. I will say that optimism is high headed into the New Year for both the hoops and gridiron squads. The basketballers are loaded and should make some noise in the NCAA tournament, while the football team will benefit from Braxton Miller's development and the addition of a top-flight coach in Urban Meyer.

The first year for the Cleveland Cavaliers after the departure of their former star player was rocky. Real rocky. Not as rocky as Kelly Dwyer's comical 12-win prediction, but 19-63 is a hard row to hoe. I'll admit it right here: I forgot how long their NBA-record winning streak was and had to look it up. Do you remember how many in a row they dropped?


Yep, it was that many, and that string followed a win that snapped a run of 10 straight losses, meaning the Cavaliers actually had a period where they lost 36 of 37 games. They went four months without winning a road game. Unbelievable.

But weirdly, the 2010-11 season was kinda fun. There were some really memorable games, as I documented in my season recap. Don't believe me? Check it out:
- The season-opening win of the defending East Champion Celtics
- Mo Williams nailing a game-winning J right in Brandon Jennings' face
- The 126-119 overtime win over the Clips that finally snapped the streak, legitimately one of the greatest sporting events I've ever attended. The atmosphere was amazing.
- Toppling the Lakers at the Q in February.
- Handling the Knicks at home in an FCF-attended contest

And, of course, easily the greatest moment of the season, the cathartic 102-90 whipping of the villainous Miami Heat. Warm and fuzzy, all around. Thinking of that game still makes me smile.

There were still the Playoffs to enjoy, and the Dallas Mavericks did everyone in America a solid by denying the Heat a championship by notching a six-game Finals win. Couple that with the Cavaliers nabbing Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson in the Draft. Compared to where Cleveland basketball was in February, the laughingstock of the league with a vitriolically-despised rival on track to win it all, things improved dramatically.

And now that the lockout has ended, we have the new-look 2011-12 Cavaliers on the floor. Expectations are low, and I'm just going to sit back and enjoy the club. This season is really about Irving and Thompson, and seeing if one or two other guys emerge as potential contributors. They'll very likely be a lottery team again, and that's alright, but in the meantime I'll enjoy the action and bask in the wins when they do happen.

And hate on the Heat, can't forget that.

Thanks for reading anything any of us at FCF wrote in 2011, and here's to a prosperous new year in Ohio sports.

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