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Monday, July 4, 2016

The Decision, Part II

At first, I compared the Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors move to LeBron James' move to the Miami Heat in 2010. Upon further review, I think the Durant move is far worse.

The only thing that would have made it even worse was to go to a Boys and Girls Club in Connecticut with ESPN cameras in tow and reveal to the national audience he was breaking OKC's heart by "taking his talents to the Bay Area."

When LeBron joined the Heat, they were decent, but not great. They had Dwayne Wade and nothing else. When Chris Bosh decided he wanted no part of Cleveland and chose Miami, it opened the door for the "SuperFriends" to align together. And, it worked -- four straight NBA Finals, two championships sandwiched in between, a couple of colossal chokes to start and finish.

When LeBron decided to "come home" to Cleveland, the Cavs were in far worse shape than Miami was 4 years ago. But thanks to some "lucky" (wink-wink) ping-pong balls, the team was armed with some up-and-coming players and some great assets that allowed LeBron and the Cavs to remake the franchise literally overnight. In one season, they were in the NBA Finals, coming two wins away from that elusive championship. In two seasons, they were champions.

Kevin Durant has none of this. He's joining a team that's already "loaded" that has one NBA championship under its belt and had just choked away a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals after a record-setting 73-win season. He's just another spoke in the wheel. He's not off to transform anything. He's just trying to shortcut his way to a championship, and that's sad.

Durant weathered a move from Seattle to help turn the Thunder into one of the NBA's most respected franchises. They built from the ground up, and Durant was the biggest piece of that puzzle. they reached the NBA Finals once (choked away to the Heat), but that was it. And let's not forget that choke job this year, blowing a 3-1 lead to the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.

If you can't beat em, join em.

After LeBron left in 2010, I felt that Durant would be the next superstar to leave a small market for a bigger one. So, I'm not entirely surprised he left OKC. However, the move to the Warriors just reeks. Fans of the NBA have a right to be upset. It's the return of the "SuperTeam," and the league is stacking the deck for a few markets. Surprisingly, Cleveland is one of them (and I'm not complaining about that).

Remember when the NBA Lockout was all about preventing teams from "stacking the deck?" How's that working out, Adam Silver? Not so good. The salary cap is a giant joke, with so many loopholes and exceptions to allow teams to go over. The Cavs benefited from this system greatly, and now have to pay a $54 million luxury tax to the NBA (and I'm sure Dan Gilbert is writing that check while staring into that Larry O'Brien Trophy in his office, knowing that it was so worth it). However, now they are hamstrung into keeping what they have without being able to add any quality assets. Hence, why they weren't involved in the Durant sweepstakes.

Fans have a right to be pissed. Sure, we're a little unhappy in Cleveland, because it's a blatant move to stick it up our asses as the Cavs try to repeat as NBA champions. But it's not just here -- it's league-wide. If you don't live in Oakland or San Francisco or San Jose or anywhere in Northern California (or aren't a front-runner), you're not happy about this! Why, because it's NO FUN!

We might as well fast forward to next June already for Cavs-Warriors III in the NBA Finals, because -- barring serious injury or stunning upset or a page torn out of the script -- this will happen again. The NBA made a ton of money on this year's postseason, and the Cavs winning was the feel-good story that captured the nation's heart (well, most of it). The rubber match, part three of the triumverate, will shatter TV records.

It's just a shame that it's effectively made every other team irrelevant. Sure, the Knicks and Celtics made some moves, as did the Hawks, but does anyone really think those will be enough to take down the Cavs? Demar DeRozen decided to stay in Toronto -- good for him, but does anyone think the Raptors can take down the Cavs?

Kevin Durant was once known as one of the best up-and-coming talents in the NBA. Today, he's just another guy and showed his true colors.

I hope the Cavs kick their ass one more time! Don't sing it, bring it!

Until next time, remember that Cleveland not only Rocks, but are also Champions!

Monday, June 20, 2016

The End

I'm exhausted. I'm emotionally spent. My eyes are red from crying on and off for the past 15 hours or so.

But to say that today isn't a day that Joe Cleveland has been dreaming about for his entire life would be a lie. Today, Joe Cleveland is on top of the world!

After 52 long years, Cleveland finally has won a major sports championship, courtesy of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers! And, it feels good. It feels DAMN GOOD!

If you would have asked me 20 years ago which team would have been the first to snap this drought, the Cavs would have been last on my list.  Even the Browns, which technically didn't exist 20 years ago, would have been ahead on my list over the Cavs. That's because, by and large, the Cavs have been a mess as an organization.

The Browns have been a mess since they've come back in 1999, no denying that. The Cavs have been a mess for most of their 46 years of existence.

The ghosts of Ted Stepien, Bill Musselman, Gary Suiter, Randy Wittman, Trajan Langdon, Mel Turpin, Shawn Kemp, Paul Mokeski, John Lucas, Mike Brown, Byron Scott, Anthony Bennett, Dion Waiters, and so on, are exorcised. The specter of The Decision -- a decision that tore Cleveland to its core and had most of us turn on one of our area's finest exports -- is gone.

Dan Gilbert -- Forgiven!

LeBron James -- Forgiven!

The firing of David Blatt -- Forgiven!

The signing of Tristan Thompson -- Forgiven!

The trade for Kevin Love -- Forgiven!

Tyrann Lue -- Forgiven!

Kyrie Irving and his injury issues -- Forgiven!

J.R. Smith -- Forgiven!

I'm sure there are many other things that can be brought up, but if it's about the Cavs, it is truly, 100 percent, forgiven by myself and the majority of other Clevelanders today.

We're CHAMPIONS, Cleveland! And nobody can take that away from us! NOBODY!

Not the ESPNs and the Stephen A. Smiths of the world. They can try to piss on our Cheerios with speculation about LeBron leaving again -- and that's all that is, is speculation -- but it doesn't matter. Just a month after ESPN aired its brutal 30-for-30 special on Cleveland called Believeland, the Cavs went out and made sure that special is null-and-void.

I was one of LeBron James' harshest critics when he left and even when he decided to come back. I vowed that I would not "fall in love with him" all over again. If he was screwing up, I was going to hold him accountable. And my social media took a beating every now and again as a result, but I owned it. I gave him credit when credit was due, and the way he carried a shell of that team in 2015 to a Game 6 of the NBA Finals deserved a lot of credit.

However, the way he stepped up and led the Cavs to an unfathomable three consecutive wins -- two on the road -- against a Golden State team that won an NBA record 73 wins in the regular season trumps all of that. LeBron James was not to be denied in this postseason, and Kyrie Irving stepped up and went right along with him -- as did the rest of the team.

Kevin Love struggled in the NBA Finals, but in Game 7, his role as a rebounder was a huge factor in the win. The much-maligned Love pulled down 14 boards to lead the Cavs Sunday night.

Tristan Thompson, who signed a ridiculous $82 million contract prior to the regular season, showed during the postseason he was worth every penny. In the Finals, especially, he looked like the third-best player on the floor in a Cleveland uniform. He even knocked down some clutch free throws and played tough defense against the Warriors.

Nobody gave them a chance after losing Game 4 in Cleveland to go down 3-1. I certainly didn't. I almost didn't watch Game 5 because I figured it would be a formality that the Cavs would lose. To my amazement -- and the amazement of just about everybody else -- they routed the Warriors on their home floor to force a Game 6 at home. Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5 because LeBron baited him into an altercation at the end of Game 4 that may have tilted the series in Cleveland's favor in the long run.

Once again, the Cavs stepped up and denied the Warriors a chance to celebrate in their locker room, running out to a huge lead in the first quarter and never letting up. Stephen Curry lost his cool and got ejected. Green also battled foul trouble. Andre Igoudala injured his back, and Andrew Bogut injured his knee.

But still, Golden State had never lost 3 games in a row this season. They had lost 8 games in the postseason after losing 9 in 82 regular season games. They only dropped a handful of games at home. Even though the Cavs had the momentum, it was a tall order.

To both teams' credit, they played like they both wanted it. Every trip down the floor was huge. Every run was answered. Even though Golden State led by 7 at halftime (prompting ESPN to proclaim that the game was over), the Cavs were never truly out of it.

LeBron, in his essay announcing his return to Cleveland two years ago, said that "nothing in Northeast Ohio is given. Everything is earned." And this Cavs team truly earned it in every sense of the word.

I'll stop right there because I have been one of the people harping on the theory that the NBA is rigged or fixed, that the NBA officiating dictates the result of games and that the league office has a hand in how things play out. So, I'm sure people are saying, "How can the Cavs earn something that's rigged?" Fair question.

They earned it because they have the best player in the game. They earned it because they have the best point guard in the game. They earned it because they rose above the one-sided officiating (especially in Game 5) and forced the NBA to rethink some things.

Game 7 was the highest rated NBA game in many years, if not ever. The league isn't stupid. It also loves to milk storylines. And this series had two very good storylines.

I'll give the NBA credit for stepping out of the way and letting the two teams play in Game 7. But the storyline of the team, with the superstar who came home for one last run, overcoming the insurmountable deficit and dethroning the Goliath that is Golden State is too good to not get behind. If it is scripted, give the NBA a lot of props for coming up with the perfect scenario for Cleveland to end its title drought.

Even if it is fixed, it's high time something was fixed in our favor. I'll take it and I'll run with it all the way to the bank, as I'm sure just about everyone else will.

I think about watching Game 7 of the 1997 World Series at Cleveland State and watching Jose Mesa blow that save. I remember how hurt I was and how hurt a lot of my family and friends were as a result. I think that hurt, along with the Indians choking away the 2007 American League Championship Series, made me almost resent the Indians for many years. Today, that resentment is gone.

I think about being a kid -- a young teenager -- and watching the Browns come up short in three AFC Championship Games to the Denver Broncos. One on an improbable length of the field drive that forced overtime, another after a furious comeback that made up for a horrible first half ended when a classy running back was stripped of the ball just a few feet away from scoring the tying touchdown. Somehow, the Browns became my team and continued to be my team throughout those early heartbreaks. But man, did my parents and family members take it hard.

About 8 months ago, my grandfather passed away in his mid-80s. I joked, at his funeral, that he was one of the few people I knew who witnessed several Cleveland championships, and he really had (and he loved talking about them). I thought about him after this game, and how excited he would have been to see this. My love of Cleveland sports came from my grandfather, and I'm sure, wherever he is, he's so thrilled that I can experience this for myself.

My mom has been dead for almost 14 years. She was as diehard as they come when it came to rooting for Cleveland teams. I thought about her too, and how -- if she was still here -- I would have likely been watching Game 7 with her. I'm sure, wherever she is, she's thrilled I can experience this highest of highs.

Both of them were with me in spirit last night, and I get emotional thinking about it. This is what this championship means to me!

Today, with pride, I can puff out my chest and say to the world, "You're damn right I'm a Cleveland sports fan! What are you gonna do about it?" And, the haters are gonna hate, but they're a little quieter now, aren't they? And, it feels good ... it feels DAMN GOOD!

One championship is great. And if it's the only one I ever experience, so be it. At least I can point my finger back at the Pittsburgh fans and say, "Oh yeah, I know what it's like." But, I've seen what one championship can do to a community and how it lifts the civic pride of the people, how it can change the landscape of the entire sporting landscape.

Pittsburgh wasn't a great sports town until Franco Harris made an "Immaculate Reception" in the 1972 playoffs. Two years later, that Steelers franchise that was an NFL doormat for years won the Super Bowl and wound up with six. The 70s saw championships by both the Steelers and Pirates and extended in the 80s and 90s (and even this year) to the NHL's Penguins. The whole thing changed.

Boston was a town known for a baseball franchise cursed by a decision to sell off the greatest baseball player of the 20th Century -- Babe Ruth -- to the hated Yankees. That is, until the 2000s, when the Patriots stunned everyone with a Super Bowl upset and became the current benchmark franchise of the NFL, the Red Sox made up an insurmountable deficit to win its first World Series in 86 years and wind up winning 2 more, and even the Celtics and Bruins added championships. That loser mentality is gone.

The Browns' Joe Haden already has caught the fever. He penned an article for Sports Illustrated talking about how much he enjoyed this championship and how it's fired him up to do the same with the Browns. Tribe manager Terry Francona, a big Cavs fan and the manager of those miracle Red Sox winners, is I'm sure singing a similar tune to his Indians.

The Cavaliers are NBA Champions. The Lake Erie Monsters, just last week, won the second-oldest North American championship trophy in the American Hockey League's Calder Cup -- the 10th one for Cleveland, but (ironically) first one since 1964. Stipe Miocic won the UFC heavyweight championship just one month before that.

Today, sports fans will look and see the Indians are in first place in the AL Central Division. They'll see a Browns team that is starting generate a lot of excitement due to a new head coach, a former hotshot quarterback in Robert Griffin III, and a solid draft class. They'll see a Cavs team built for a possible repeat if they retain everyone and can make a few more moves (with Richard Jefferson retiring, they'll need that solid veteran to fill that key role, that "heartbeat" role). And even though Ohio's NHL team is in Columbus, it's the Monsters that are the Blue Jackets' top farm club and a lot of those players will likely get the call up within the next year or so and show if they can win championships at that level.

Today is a good day to be a Cleveland Sports Fan. We partied like it was 1964 last night and into today. We didn't burn the city down, like most people were afraid that we would. The fact that a lot of us really didn't know how to react to this sort of thing may have played into our favor. All we did was dance in the streets and cheer.

All we did was massively sing the National Anthem before every single game we hosted, which made an impression on the national audience. All we did was be true to ourselves.

God bless you, Cleveland! I love this town so damn much, it hurts! I love the Browns, Cavs and Indians so damn much, it hurts! And today, with all of you, we can call ourselves champions!

I'm exhausted. I'm emotionally spent. I've cried a few more times while I've written this piece -- a piece I've waited my entire life to write. And I'm sure it could have been better. But here it is. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I've enjoyed writing it.

Time for a nap. Congratulations, Cavs, and Go Browns and Go Tribe! And, even better, GO CLEVELAND!

The Cleveland Sports Curse is over! THE END!

Until next time, remember -- ALWAYS REMEMBER -- that Cleveland Rocks!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Boo to CSU

While the wrestling community – and justifiably so – celebrated last Wednesday with the announcement that Cleveland State is not eliminating its storied program, that was never the agenda to begin with.

Honestly, what really happened was that men’s lacrosse was added and the CSU students, in a roundabout way, agreed to raise their student fees to allow that sport to be added as a varsity sport.
That’s the bottom line.

Wrestling had been established at CSU since it was Fenn College back in 1962. Lacrosse was the new sport that athletic director John Parry had been pushing to add.

Parry, who played and coached lacrosse in the past, has repeatedly denied that he had his own best interests at heart when he lobbied for the sport to be added. He cited studies that showed lacrosse was the “fastest growing sport in America” and felt that the sport would bring in to CSU a “different crop of students” than they have had, which would bring more money to the university.

The perception is that lacrosse is a “rich person’s sport,” so you can connect the dots there.

But what Parry may, or may not, have realized is that, while lacrosse may be growing fast nationally, in Northeast Ohio, lacrosse is an afterthought. In Lorain County, there are only five high schools that offer the sport.

Meanwhile, wrestling is offered all but three Lorain County high schools. And, Northeast Ohio just so happens to be a hotbed for amateur wrestling, one of the top regions in the country for it.

It’s unfortunate that it’s pitted the sport of lacrosse against the sport of wrestling, because that really isn’t fair to either sport. If anything, though, it caused people who cared little or nothing about lacrosse in the past to really care about it, albeit strongly against it. But they say bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all.

Parry had lobbied to add the referendum to the spring ballot raising the student fees per credit hour $4-$6 to add men’s lacrosse and another women’s sport, but that referendum was shot down by the university president. However, when the word came out that the funding for lacrosse would come at the expense of wrestling, the students themselves pushed to add the referendum to the ballot, and it passed, 975-650.

Had the initial plan gone through to have the referendum just for lacrosse and another women’s sport, I have a feeling it would not have passed as convincingly as it did for wrestling, if not outright failing. It failed four years ago when football – a much higher profile sport than either wrestling or lacrosse – was being proposed by CSU.

The school, instead of instituting the full raise, will simply increase the student tuition fees to just $1 per credit hour to add lacrosse and keep wrestling alive for now. Eventually, though, they’ll have to add a women’s sport to satisfy Title IX, and that full increase will likely be implemented.

In essence, wrestling was used as a pawn to achieve what Parry wanted all along – a fee increase to fund his beloved lacrosse. And that’s just sad.

Once upon a time, I was a student at Cleveland State. I was the sports editor for the student-run newspaper for two school years (1997-99) and saw firsthand just how passionate the wrestling community can be.

During my first year at the school, the athletic director pushed for longtime head wrestling coach Dick Bonacci to retire. When Bonacci refused, he was fired. The response from the wrestling community – both alumni and non-alumni – was so strong that the decision was reversed, and Bonacci coached the Vikings for two more seasons.

Bonacci stuck around long enough to see his university and his program proudly host the 1998 NCAA Wrestling Tournament at the Wolstein Center, which was a tremendous event, especially for a “cub” sportswriter who had dabbled in wrestling coverage in his young career and still wasn’t quite sure what to make of the sport. Today, that sportswriter is proud to have covered local high school wrestling for 15 years with many more on the horizon.

The wrestling community deserves to take a bow. They knew they were being used, but the bottom line of saving the sport they love took precedence over everything. It was a Catch-22, because being forced to raise $5 million on their own to save a program – and don’t doubt that it wouldn’t have been done, because it would have – sets a dangerous precedent that I’m sure other universities would have took notice of.

Now, that cost is offset, and it is thanks to their tireless effort of spreading the word both locally and nationally that got the job done.

As for Cleveland State, the fact that they let one of their most storied athletic programs hang out to dry is shameful. If I were a wrestler or a coach of that program, I would probably be very conflicted. While it was clear the CSU community had their backs, the fact that the powers that be did not had to be heartbreaking.

I just hope that when lacrosse begins at Cleveland State in the 2016-17 school year, those players and coaches take a moment to thank and applaud their wrestling brothers. Because, if it wasn’t for them, they wouldn’t exist.

Until next time, remember that Cleveland Rocks!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Bye the bye

As a diehard Cleveland Browns fan, Joe Cleveland has seen his share of frustrating losses.

But last Sunday's home 23-21 loss to the hated Baltimore Ravens, the team I've referred to as the Thieving Bastards and I've now referred to as the Lying Bastards due to the Ray Rice incident, may have been one of the most frustrated I've been.

The Week 1 30-27 loss at Pittsburgh sucked, but the fact that the Browns rallied from a 27-3 halftime deficit to tie the game, only to lose on a last-play field goal, left me feeling conflicted. I hated losing to the Steelers, but I found myself feeling good that this Browns team didn't tuck its tail between its legs like so many other Browns teams have done in Pittsburgh. They sucked it up and played their asses off and had the Steelers and their front-running fans on the ropes.

Then was Week 2 and the 26-24 win over a rollicking FirstEnergy Stadium that had some of us harkening back to the "Pandemonium Palace" days of the 1980s and 90s at the original Cleveland Stadium. The crowd was energized in the newly-refurbished stadium from beginning to end and the drive Brian Hoyer and the offense put together to win the game (without Jordan Cameron, Ben Tate and Josh Gordon, by the way) had most cynical Browns fans believing that this wasn't the "Same Old Browns."

With the Ravens organization rocked following allegations that they colluded with the NFL on a backdoor deal to reduce Ray Rice's suspension and hid the results of the damning elevator video that showed the running back clocking his future wife and knocking her out cold, and with Browns riding a wave of positive momentum, fans showed up Sunday believing that their team not only could win, but also that they would win.

And, for all but the final seconds of the game, the Browns were in position to win and improve to 2-1 going into their bye week. They scored on their opening possession of the game, got two rushing touchdowns and a passing touchdown from Hoyer to Miles Austin and saw Hoyer only throw six incomplete passes the entire game. The Browns got a big interception from Tashaun Gipson, a huge fourth-down stop in their own territory, a 70-yard completion to rookie Taylor Gabriel and an apparent TD pass to Austin that was called back because Hoyer had crossed the line of scrimmage.

And, the Browns wound up with no points as a result of those huge fourth quarter plays thanks to two missed field goals by Billy Cundiff, who's biggest sin in the eyes of Browns fans is that he is not Phil Dawson. Seriously.

The first three Browns games have all been decided in the final seconds and both losses came from last-second field goals. Their win, coincidentally, came on a last-second field goal as well. So this team could just as easily be 3-0, 0-3 or 2-1, but are 1-2.

Joe Cleveland believes that there are parties to blame for the Ravens loss, but he thinks the blame is being misdirected at certain people. Namely, Cundiff and, for some inexplicable reason, Hoyer.

For the latter, I think it's because there are still a few Johnny Manziel honks out there who want to see their boy at quarterback and looking to find something, ANYTHING, to discredit the guy who beat him out. For those people, I highly suggest going to W. 6th with all the other douchebags and get off the Manziel hype. Hoyer has clearly played well enough to be the Browns' starter for the remainder of the season, so give it up.

And, the Browns have played the overhyped rookie all of five plays in three games. He's handed off three times (for losses on each), threw a pass that was dropped by a rookie fullback (that even Manziel admitted wasn't the best pass he ever threw) and caught a 39-yard pass on a trick play that was called back due to an illegal shift penalty on rookie Terrance West.

MANZIEL'S BEST PLAY AS AN NFL PLAYER CAME AS A RECEIVER! Keep that in mind! And, it didn't even count!

If it wasn't for Hoyer, the Browns don't rally in the second half of the Steeler game, they certainly don't win the Saints game and they aren't in position to win the Ravens game. Those are facts, and it's time to swallow that bitter pill, Johnny fans.

Now, on to Cundiff.

To be honest, the blame should go to long snapper Christian Yount, who is starting to go through a Ryan Pontbriand-esque 2011 slump. He's made bad snaps in each of the last two games, and all have directly cost the Browns points.

He delivered a high snap on an extra point snap that Spencer Lanning couldn't get down for Cundiff, and Lanning tried to run it in for two points and was stopped. The Browns were down by one point instead of tied when Hoyer took over possession at his own 4 with just over two minutes to go. The field goal team redeemed itself at the end of that drive, but that winning field goal came within an eyelash of being blocked.

On a 50-yard field goal attempt (into the wind, by the way) following Gipson's interception, Yount delivered a low snap to Lanning that may have messed with the timing. Cundiff's kick hooked at the last possible second and clanged off the left upright. But, it was a 50-yard attempt. Once upon a time, those kicks weren't deemed automatic in the NFL, and, to be honest, they still aren't. And, while Cundiff has a huge leg, he's never been the most accurate kicker from 50 yards and beyond.

After the 4th down stop by the defense, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan dialed up a deep ball, and Hoyer found Gabriel wide open. Gabriel fell down making the catch, but had the presence of mind to get up and race down inside the 20. Had Gabriel not fell down, it would have been a touchdown. But, clearly, the Browns were within chipshot field goal range.

Hoyer's biggest mistake came on a third-down play. Being pressured and with nobody open, Hoyer began to scramble. But, he noticed the defender peel off Austin in the back of the end zone, leaving him wide open. Hoyer lofted a pass to Austin, but he didn't realize that he was well beyond the line of scrimmage. As a veteran lauded for his football intelligence, it was a rare boner by Hoyer. The result of the play was a loss of 10 yards and down, making the field goal a 36-yard attempt.

Once again, Yount's snap was a bit off, and Cundiff's kick was blocked by the Ravens. You can blame the line for that one. And, if you recall how close Cundiff's game-winner came to being blocked one week ago, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the kick was blocked.

To be honest, the special teams unit a whole needs to be addressed, because they have been a letdown all season long. The Browns have had a problem allowing long returns on kickoffs and punts and Travis Benjamin has clearly lost his X-factor abilities as a punt returner. His decision to not catch a punt he signaled a fair catch for and letting it bounce and roll inside the 10 was a swing of almost 25 yards of field position and may have been the difference in the Ravens getting great field position for their game-winning drive.

Chris Tabor has survived two coaching regime changes, but if his unit keeps this up, he won't survive into next year. This unit has clearly regressed and it cost the Browns the Ravens game, plain and simple.

While some fans are calling for a new kicker, perhaps the Browns should look at long snappers and new punt and kickoff returners. Jim Leonard isn't a big-play threat returning punts, but he's experienced enough that he'll make the smart decision. He'll catch the punt and not muff it, and he'll fair catch it if it's needed. Benjamin even muffed a punt earlier in the Ravens game.

Fortunately, Justin Tucker boomed most of his kickoffs out of the end zone, because the Browns have made a bad habit out of returning kicks out from deep in the end zone and getting stuff before they reach the 20. Take a knee and start at the 20. It's the smart football decision, and the Browns need to get smart football players back there to make those decisions. Nobody the Browns have returning kicks have the track record to take the ball out of the back of the end zone. You didn't doubt Josh Cribbs doing it because Cribbs had returned so many kickoffs for touchdowns in his career. But Marlon Moore and Taylor Gabriel don't have that track record, and Benjamin clearly isn't the same since he tore his ACL last year.

Joe Haden has been hearing his lion's share of criticism and some of it's deserved. I don't blame him for Week 2 because Jimmy Graham is such a matchup nightmare for any cornerback because of his height and athleticism. Haden gave up almost a foot in that matchup, and all Drew Brees had to do was loft it high and Graham was going to go up and get it. Haden did what he could, which was keep Graham in front of him and prevent him from turning catches into big ones.

However, Antonio Brown torched him in Week 1 and he gave up a huge catch to the aging Steve Smith at the end of last Sunday's loss to Baltimore. The 30-plus yard catch put the Ravens in chip-shot range for Tucker, and the Browns weren't able to get a push to block the kick.

With Haden just signing a big contract extension that pays him in the ballpark as shutdown corners like Richard Sherman, Darrelle Revis and Patrick Peterson, it's fair for Browns to expect stellar play from Haden. Perhaps Haden suddenly has a case of "big-contract-itis" that seems to plague many of Cleveland's athletes.

Haden says and does all the right things off the field. He's endeared himself to the fanbase by really falling in love with Cleveland. When Cleveland was taking a beating nationally following LeBron James' departure, Haden embraced the city and the city was only too happy to embrace him back. He's easy to root for, and he's shown the ability to play a good cornerback in the NFL. But, on a team where everyone has to do their 1/11th to the best of their ability if this team's going to win, Haden's struggles are amplified. The Browns want to pressure the quarterback with their front-seven, and in order to do that, the cornerbacks are often left out on an island. Mike Pettine's defense did that with Revis and the Jets, and Revis embraced that concept.

Also, first-round rookie Justin Gilbert -- expected to be the Frank Minnifield to Haden's Hanford Dixon -- has had a rough baptism to life in the NFL. He struggled in the preseason and those struggles carried over to the games against the Steelers and the Ravens. For the Browns to be successful, Buster Skrine cannot be the No. 2 cornerback. Skrine is better served as the nickelback, and that means Gilbert has to grow up and play. I still believe Gilbert can be the Minnifield in this defense, but when you were taken 8th overall (and your bosses passed on the chance to take Sammy Watkins in order to take you), the target is upon you, fair or not.

With that being said, it's not totally on the secondary, either. For whatever reason, the Browns have historically struggled stopping the run, and through 3 games this year, those struggles have returned. You can say that Week 2 was part of the gameplan -- to focus on stopping Brees and the dangerous passing game by sacrificing the run defense. But what's the excuse for last Sunday? Some rookie named Lorenzo Taliaferro and a journeyman named Justin Forsett made the Ravens forget all about Rice by running roughshod all over the Browns. Taliaferro was the best rookie running back on the field Sunday, which isn't good when the Browns were relying on two rookies in West and Isiah Crowell.

Speaking of West, he's channeling his inner Trent Richardson by dancing too much before hitting the hole. He clearly took a step backward on Sunday. Crowell, to me, has outplayed West thus far. And, with Ben Tate slated to return following the bye, West could be in danger of falling to third on the depth chart. Any talk of there not being a role for Tate because of West is quiet now.

The Browns lost to the Ravens on Sunday in "Same Old Browns" fashion, which is a shame. I can't tell you how many games the Browns have invented new ways to lose since 1999, and Sunday was the latest in a long line of those struggles.

Mike Pettine blamed himself and his coaching staff for the loss, and the players blamed themselves and not the coach. Pettine has shrugged off the talk of "moral victories" that so many coaches (Butch Davis, for one) relied on in the past and has made this team accountable for wins and losses. It's refreshing, and that's sad because that was lacking from this team for so long.

I believe the players have bought into what Pettine is selling. I believe that they have bought into Hoyer as the starting quarterback and have rallied around their veteran leaders such as Karlos Dansby, Dante Whitner, Hoyer and Joe Thomas. It's encouraging to see the Browns actually resemble an NFL TEAM out there on Sundays instead of a hodge-podge of individuals setting football back to the stone ages with their play.

However, Sunday showed that Rome wasn't built in a day and this Browns team still has a ways to go before they are a legitimate playoff contender. A win over the Ravens could have put the Browns in a great position coming off the bye and facing several winnable opponents over the next five weeks like the Titans, the Steelers (at home), the Jaguars, the Raiders and the Buccaneers (in back-to-back home games). The Browns being 7-1 going into a nationally-televised game at Cincinnati would have been amazing, and there's a chance they could be 6-2 going into that game. However, chances are more likely they will be 4-4, 5-3, or even 3-5.

How the Browns respond to last Sunday's disappointment through the bye week will go a long way. There were a lot of lessons to be learned by everyone, including Hoyer, Haden, Cundiff, Whitner, West, Gilbert, even Manziel and especially Pettine, Shanahan, Jim O'Neil and Tabor. Here's hoping they learned those lessons of what not do to and not let them happen again.

The "Same Old Browns" wouldn't learn from their mistakes. If Pettine is truly going to change the culture and make "Play Like a Brown" a positive mantra, they can't make the same mistakes twice.

Until next time, remember that Cleveland Rocks!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Homecoming King

"Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now."

-- LeBron James, the lead to his exclusive Sports Illustrated revelation that he was returning to the Cavaliers

Joe Cleveland's alarm went off at 1 p.m. and he woke up, oblivious to the fact that his hometown was in the process of losing its collective mind.

He turned on his cell phone, and it immediately buzzed with activity. Two voice mails, and both from the former Mrs. Joe Cleveland.

You know it's big (and positive) news when your ex-wife is calling you excitedly and encouraging you to jump on your computer.

As I'm listening to these voice mails and clearing the cobwebs from my head, the text message and Twitter feeds from my phone were scrolling across messages. One read, "Bron-Bron is coming home."

Most people who know me know I haven't exactly been shy about my disdain for LeBron James. Ever since he "decided" to leave the Cavaliers four years ago to take his "talents to South Beach" and play for the Heat, I've been one of his harshest critics.

When his Heat lost to Dallas that first year, I celebrated like the Cavs won the NBA championship. When the Heat won the NBA championship in the second year, I harped on the fact that the NBA season was shortened by 16 games and that it should have an asterisk next to it. When they beat the San Antonio Spurs the next year, I talked about how it was 8-on-5 due to the shady NBA officiating in Game 6.

But, this year, as the Spurs manhandled the Heat, I didn't seem to care one way or the other. Sure, I was rooting for San Antonio, but it wouldn't have depressed me if Miami won this time. By that point, I had washed my hands of the NBA. I didn't care about the league. I didn't care about the Cavs. I just didn't care.

Even as speculation grew that LeBron James would opt out of his contract following the 2014 season, I dismissed any notion that he would return to the Cavs. The wounds were still too fresh. Dan Gilbert still owned the team, and his infamous open letter to the "so-called King" was still up on the Cavaliers' Web page. I figured Gilbert would agree to bring him back -- he is a businessman, after all -- but I didn't think LeBron would want to play for him.

Cleveland fans jeered his successes and cheered for his failures. But that's what we do -- we root for the name on the front of the jersey. Sure, the name on the back may have belonged to the player who is, for all intents and purposes, the biggest star in the NBA, but he left us, damnit! Clips of a few fans burning his jersey were replayed by ESPN all the time, even Friday as he announced that he was returning.

So, I came out from the start of the year thinking one way and kept the same refrain going until the time I went to bed Thursday night/early Friday morning:

He's not coming back!

I shouted it from the rooftops. I put it on my Facebook page. I posted it to others' Facebook pages. I told that to people on the street when they asked my opinion. And, I will own it because that's what I believed.

I feared that all the Cleveland fans who were ready to jump back on the LeBron bandwagon were setting themselves up for more heartbreak when he decided to re-sign with the Heat or even sign with a team like the Rockets or Bulls or Clippers.

He's the best player in the NBA. There's NO WAY he's coming to play for the lowly Cavaliers.

The Cavs have been a mess since LeBron left. Sure, the NBA has tried to help by awarding the franchise three No. 1 overall picks in the last four years, five picks in the top four and seven first rounders as a whole. Other than Kyrie Irving, who hasn't been a pillar of health during his basketball career, none of those picks have really panned out. Dion Waiters has shown flashes, but his clashing with Irving last year derailed the 2013-14 season from really ever having success.

The Cavs fired Mike Brown and Danny Ferry in the wake of LeBron's first absence, then hired and fired Byron Scott as head coach and Chris Grant as GM and then re-hired and re-fired Brown as head coach. They had just promoted David Griffin to GM, a largely unknown commodity around the NBA, and went overseas to find David Blatt to be the new head coach. Blatt was known as the "Phil Jackson of Europe," but he's never coached stateside in his career.

The people who were claiming that LeBron James would come here to this, I thought, were on drugs. People were allowing their optimism to run rampant. People were quoting sources linked to sources on Twitter, and any little LeBron thing was re-Tweeted to the masses.

It was hysteria around Northeast Ohio this week, and I wasn't going to get caught up in it.

But, I did. With every public denial, privately, I began to find myself believing he could come back. I just didn't want to be taken for a ride like I did four years ago, when I was convinced that he'd never leave Cleveland.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

To paraphrase George W. Bush, I was not about to get fooled again. Miami could have him. He was going to re-up with his boys Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and try to win more championship rings in Miami. Trying to bring a championship ring to Cleveland, where he'd be the top dog trying to cultivate all of this young talent, would be too much work for LeBron James.

I think that's what made Friday seem so, dare I say it, fun. Because I allowed myself to be surprised, to be shocked, to be stunned. I didn't believe it until I heard it from the horse's mouth, and there it was, published to Sports Illustrated's Web site, "I'm Coming Home," by LeBron James.

After watching my phone go into seizures spewing out all of this social media news, I glanced out my front window. I expected to see either the apocalypse happening or a mass orgy in the streets. I saw neither, but Facebook and Twitter appeared to be engaging in both all day.

Sports talkers locally broke down and cried on air, crying tears of joy. Callers to those shows broke down.

Never before has a superstar in any sport signed with a Cleveland team in free agency. OK, maybe Roberto Alomar when he signed with the Indians, but his career was starting to go on the downside. LeCharles Bentley was a Pro Bowl center and Ohio State star (and Cleveland native) when he signed with the Browns, but he was A CENTER! Plus, he got injured in his first practice and never played a down in the NFL after that.

Andrew Bynum was an All-Star in the past with the Lakers before signing with the Cavs, but he came in as damaged goods and left as damaged goods, not even playing a full season in Cleveland.

If LeBron James wasn't from Akron, Cleveland would have never even been in the running. That's a fact. It would have been like Atlanta, Milwaukee or Sacramento, decent teams, but LeBron never gave those teams the time of day. And, it's a fact that LeBron mentions over and over during what some fans are calling The Essay.

"When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission. I was seeking championships, and we won two. But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.
"I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there. I just didn’t know when. After the season, free agency wasn’t even a thought. But I have two boys and my wife, Savannah, is pregnant with a girl. I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my hometown. I looked at other teams, but I wasn’t going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland. The more time passed, the more it felt right. This is what makes me happy.
"To make the move I needed the support of my wife and my mom, who can be very tough. The letter from Dan Gilbert, the booing of the Cleveland fans, the jerseys being burned -- seeing all that was hard for them. My emotions were more mixed. It was easy to say, “OK, I don’t want to deal with these people ever again.” But then you think about the other side. What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react? I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We’ve talked it out. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?"
Apparently, the much-publicized plane ride to South Florida by Gilbert on Sunday did happen, and Gilbert sat down with James, his agent, Rich Paul, and his business adviser Maverick Carter. The two men aired their grievances, apologized to each other, and sought to start anew.
LeBron wanted to come back to Cleveland. Gilbert wanted LeBron James on his team. It was just a matter of these two stubborn individuals seeing if they could let bygones be bygones and start over with a fresh slate.
Once that question was answered, LeBron met with Pat Riley in Las Vegas on Wednesday. Some wonder if he was giving Riley one last chance to sway him. Others think that it was LeBron's way of saying good-bye. Either way, that Wednesday meeting came and went, and there was no word of whether he was signing with the Cavs or staying with the Heat.
To LeBron's credit, he's not making bold statements about "Not 1, not 2, not 3 ..." championships. In fact, he doesn't even guarantee one, although Vegas immediately made the Cavs the favorites to win next year's NBA title at 3-1.
"I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go. I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys. I think I can help Kyrie Irving become one of the best point guards in our league. I think I can help elevate Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. And I can’t wait to reunite with Anderson Varejao, one of my favorite teammates.
"But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.
"In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.
"I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home."
Anyone who has lived or does live in Northeast Ohio know that second-to-last paragraph is true. Only a person who lived here would understand that. LeBron, in leaving, appears to have discovered that.
The one thing that us, as Cleveland fans, cannot do is turn a blind eye to LeBron James if he screws up. We have to hold him accountable. We cannot coddle him like we did the last time. We were so paranoid that he was going to leave no one wanted to criticize him And, when he did leave, the three years of criticisms that never got aired came flowing all out of us at once, and didn't stop for roughly four years.
Cleveland wasn't shy about criticizing Irving when he messed up, to the point where some people were afraid that he wouldn't sign his max extension. But he did, which was the first piece of the puzzle. Ironically, because of the NBA's rules, Irving is poised to earn more money than James over the course of their respective deals.
We have to let James know that, if he's not giving forth the effort, we're not going to stand for it. While he didn't promise a championship, we all know he wants one as bad as we do. 
Winning one championship in Cleveland would make those two he won in Miami almost irrelevant. Part of it, as LeBron said, is because Miami has won championships recently -- Cleveland hasn't won one in 50 years! Another part of it is the circumstances. LeBron won't have his buddies Wade and Bosh to take the slack off him this time. Now, it's an unproven, but intriguing, cast of young characters like Irving, Waiters, Thompson and Andrew Wiggins, if the Cavs hold on to all of them.
As James put it, coming back is about a lot more than basketball. It's about a lot more than sports. It's about civic pride. It's about the economy. Having James in a Cavs uniform the next five winters (at least) will make Downtown Cleveland a happening place during the cold months, like they were the seven years before he left. Bars and restaurants will do more business. Vendors will make money.

Perhaps free agents may want to come to Cleveland. There are already rumors that Kevin Love could be joining the Cavs, perhaps as soon as this year. Former Miami teammates Ray Allen and Mike Miller, while both aging, have expressed an interest in joining James with the Cavs, and their shooting abilities and mere veteran presences will be assets to this young bunch.
Cleveland already landed the Republican National Convention, which will be huge for this city. Revenue will be coming in like mad, and politicians and the national media will descend upon Cleveland to see a city revitalized. The Browns already seem to be benefiting from a resurgence due to some shrewd moves, but also because of the presence of Johnny Manziel (who may or may not start as a rookie, but is affiliated with LeBron's management group). The Indians have won three out of their last four games and began Friday night's game with a big welcome home message to James on their giant scoreboard.
Whether you are a LeBron James fan or not (and, even with the goodwill, put me in the not category at the moment), you can't argue the good feelings generated for this city. ESPN is suddenly forced to care about Cleveland sports again. With Manziel on the Browns and James on the Cavs, that's two franchises the four-letter network has kicked while they've been down for many years that will dominate the headlines for the foreseeable future. 
Cleveland fans have always been "real fans." Sure, we can be fickle and we can be critical about our teams (just look at the Indians), but deep down, we always root for them. We wear Browns, Indians and Cavs gear with pride, almost like an act of defiance. "Yeah, I'm a Browns fan, what are you gonna do about it?" It's easy to root for a team that's won six Super Bowls. To be a Browns fan or an Indians fan or a Cavs fan, you've got to be tough.
Now, we've gotten the last laugh. There is a genuine sense of optimism about our teams. Fans aren't wondering IF the Cavs will win an NBA title, they're wondering WHEN. Fans are starting to believe in the Browns again after this offseason and are, deep down, hoping the Indians can make them believe they can follow up last year's wild-card berth.
Part of me will feel like we made a deal with the devil if the Cavs wind up winning a championship first. It won't feel as true because it took LeBron James -- a guy most of us hated for the last four years -- coming back to bring it here. But I'm going to root for the Cavs, like I always do, and I'm going to root for a championship.
I hope LeBron makes Cleveland fans forget about those four years in Miami. He was another in a long, long list of people who left Cleveland to win championships -- Art "Judas" Modell, Bill Belichick, Bernie Kosar, Earnest Byner, Bill Laimbeer, Chuck Daly, Bill Cowher, CC Sabathia, Graig Nettles, Roger Maris, Tommy Agee, Paul Warfield, Dennis Eckersley, just to name a few. A few on this list eventually came back, but none came back and won a championship. James is the first one to come back, in the prime of his career, with a legitimate chance to win that championship.
Will he do it? I'll say this -- anything less than one, and I will continue to be critical of LeBron James. However, the wounds have healed, because this time, he handled it the right way.
Until next time, remember that Cleveland Rocks!

Saturday, June 28, 2014


So, did you miss me?

It's been several months since I donned my "Joe Cleveland" hat and took to this blog to vent about Cleveland sports. And, it's not because I haven't have a lack of material to vent about.

My favorite whipping boy, Mike Lombardi, was fired along with Joe Banner. The new streamlined braintrust, led by promoted GM Ray Farmer (who has already made three-times the public appearances in just a few months than his predecessor did in a full year), had what looks to be a successful draft, led by cornerback Justin Gilbert and embattled quarterback Johnny Manziel (more on him in a bit).

The Cavs ran Chris Grant out of town midway through the season and then gave Mike Brown the ax after his Cavs won just 33 games this past year. David Griffin was promoted to GM, who hired David Blatt, the "Phil Jackson of Europe," as the new Cavaliers' head coach. And, the ping-pong balls bounced in the Cavs' favor and landed them the No. 1 pick, which they used on Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins.

The Indians, well ... they're the Indians. Just when you write them off, they reel off 6 or 7 straight wins. And just when you're ready to jump back on the bandwagon, they lose 7 or 8 straight games. They're a very frustrating team to follow.

But, Joe Cleveland has been biding his time and waiting to pick his spot to talk about the newest Browns quarterback, the guy who many fans believe is the "savior" and who many other fans feel is a bust waiting to happen. The guy who made dynamic plays in college, but is under 6-feet tall and has a game built around his legs. The guy who can come off as quiet and says the right things in press conferences, but shows up all over social media making a giant jackass of himself.

Let's face it, either you're with Johnny Manziel or you're against him. There's no middle ground here. He's arguably the most divisive sports personality Cleveland has ever seen.

You could make a case for Albert Belle, who made his share of foul-ups while he was playing for the Indians. But fans, by and large, seemed to turn a blind eye to it as long as he hit home runs and his team won. But, as soon as he bolted in free agency to Chicago, the gloves came off. Only recently has Belle, the Indians and the fan base come to some sort of uneasy alliance.

You could make a case for John Rocker, who alienated a lot of people with some comments that some people took as racist as the closer for the Braves. But he wasn't in Cleveland for very long, didn't play very well while he was here, and was quickly shipped out. Most fans probably don't even remember he was an Indian.

You could bring up LeBron James, but most of the vitriol was directed at James after he made his infamous "Decision." (By the way, don't get me started on Decision II. I will say this -- there's no chance he signs back with the Cavs, so I'm not getting emotionally vested in it. If he does, so be it.) Cleveland fans loved James, even though they feared he was going to leave. And, when he left, fans weren't shy about their allegations that he "quit" on his team, his city and his fanbase in back-to-back playoff series'. A lot of fans still would rather him not come back due to his actions in 2010, but quite a few are ready to forgive.

I honestly can't think of a guy on a Cleveland team who has split the fanbase more than the so-called "Johnny Football." And, there are many factors to this.

First, there were quite a few NFL folks who were concerned that his game wouldn't translate to the pros. He doesn't have the size that prototypical NFL quarterbacks have. He doesn't have the game (aka pocket presence) that the NFL seems to prefer. He likes to freelance, which the NFL doesn't really seem to like. His scrambling opens himself up to injury (see Robert Griffin III), and he's coming into the league with a reputation that may only make him more of a target.

Second, there were the off-the-field concerns that have reared it's ugly head in only two months as a Brown. Manziel was a social media target as a quarterback at Texas A&M. Manziel loved to party. Manziel loved to drink. Manziel loved to be around celebrities and hot women. Manziel loved to make a money sign with his fingers on the field, especially after he was investigated by the NCAA for allegedly selling his autograph for money following his Heisman Trophy-winning season.

He created the "Johnny Football" persona, and it reflected all that was wrong with Manziel. Some NFL execs were convinced he has maturity issues and that it would derail his career. Some NFL teams didn't want to deal with the "circus atmosphere" that comes with Manziel, who has been under the ESPN microscope since he dazzled Alabama as a redshirt freshman and upset them.

It was a big reason why Manziel, who had been slotted to go as high as No. 1 overall (Houston passed and took defensive lineman Jadaveon Clowney), plummeted down the first round to the 22nd pick. It was the Browns, who seemed to be rumored destination at No. 4, who finally stopped the slide, traded up from No. 26 and snagged him. Immediately, season ticket sales spiked and orders for his No. 2 jersey came from all over the country.

Manziel's jersey is the top-selling jersey in the NFL, and he hasn't even taken a snap yet. Suddenly, the Browns are national news. ESPN remembered that there was an NFL team in Cleveland with uniforms and everything, as did the NFL Network and other outlets. And, it seems that Manziel is the hot topic of discussion.

Sure, sometimes it's because new coach Mike Pettine won't hand Manziel the starting quarterback job and has entrenched Brian Hoyer as the starter. But, mostly, it's because of some picture or video of a drunken Manziel popping up on social media.

Manziel spent a weekend in Las Vegas, and the pictures of him drinking with bikini-clad women at a pool party were all over the place. It seems that he loves champagne, because every other picture or video of Manziel has him holding a bottle, either swigging out of it or spraying it at people or, simply, being passed out on an inflatable swan.

Someone filed a hoax lawsuit in Florida about Manziel, alleging some type of sexual harassment of a TV personality. That lawsuit was quickly dismissed, but not before it became national news.

Then there was the video that popped up on Instagram of a drunken Manziel in a hot tub holding a stack of cash to his ear like a phone and slurring, "I can't hear you because I've got so much fucking cash in my hand." A day later, it was announced that Manziel had signed his rookie contract with the Browns.

The Manziel critics had a field day with all of these. The Manziel fans used the "he's only 21" defense until they were blue in the face and claimed, "the season hasn't started yet. He's allowed to have fun."

Joe Cleveland will admit that he's NEVER been a Manziel fan. I didn't like him in college. I thought he was an ass, a douchebag. I didn't care for his game very much, either. I felt he'd be another Heisman bust in the NFL. I felt he was too small for the NFL. I felt that his partying would only get worse in the NFL after getting millions of dollars from his contract and from his endorsements. And, I felt that he could be a distraction for a team that's so desperately trying to rediscover its winning ways.

I did not want him in Cleveland, but now he's here. Yay!

From what I've heard, when Manziel is sober and is around football, he's very quiet and unassuming. But get him to the club with his boys and women and a bottle of champagne, and Johnny Football comes out. And I'm starting to realize that I'm not a fan of this Johnny Football fellow.

As a Browns fan, I think Manziel's drunken antics are embarrassing. And, for those who want to blame the media, umm, the media's not the one holding up their cell phones taking pictures and video of the guy. It's the media's job to report on this and, unfortunately, Manziel has made himself a target for this because of his antics at Texas A&M. And, it's only going to get worse.

Manziel, the other day at the NFL Rookie Symposium, told reporters that he wants to be "left alone." Sorry, dude, but you brought this all on yourself by being a drunken douche and letting your boys and female fans take pictures and videos and not objecting to them being Instagrammed and Twittered and Facebooked for the world to see. You created the Johnny Football monster. You looked up at the sky and rubbed your index fingers and thumbs together as a sign for getting paid. It's too late, son!

You made your bed, now you've got to lie in it.

The only way Manziel quiets the noise is to become a choir boy off the field. Stop going to the clubs. Stop buying expensive bottles of Cristal. Stop going to the strip clubs. Stop going out in public with celebrities and acting a fool.

He's already been brought to the principal's office, so to speak, and been given a talking to from Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, who felt his recent social media antics were embarrassing for himself and the franchise. Joe Haden has already given him some advice, saying he needs a phone valet to stop people from posting embarrassing videos of him. His teammates are tired of answering questions about him, both fellow rookies and the veterans.

You don't think an opposing veteran will want to put this spoiled rookie in his place during a game this year by giving him a nice little love tap or two? You don't think teams will look to knock the kid out?

Obviously, Manziel quiets the noise by winning. He will win over the local skeptics by playing great on the field, making the Browns exciting and leading this team to wins, the playoffs and (hopefully) a Super Bowl championship. His fans believe that this WILL happen, and that's why they defend him. As a Browns fan, I hope it DOES happen, because I'm tired of losing.

Of course, winning could only exacerbate the Johnny Football persona. More celebrities will come out of the woodwork if he wins. More women will come out of the woodwork. More vices may pop up. Alcohol will be more available than it already is. Drugs (cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy) may become available at the drop of the hat. The cellphone cameras will be directed at him every time he goes out in public. If he takes a shit at a public restroom, it will be big news.

But that's the price you pay for fame and when you've never shied away from the spotlight. Manziel used the spotlight as an act of defiance toward the NCAA and Texas A&M, and the legend of Johnny Football grew and grew. It didn't hurt that his Aggies were entertaining and won more than they lost (although they never won a national championship or even an SEC championship). It's up to Manziel to surround himself with the right people and check the Johnny Football persona at the door.

Manziel talks about his "brand" (which is such an annoying term that modern athletes use) and wanting to advance it. Well, the best way to enhance your "brand," besides becoming a winner on the field, staying healthy and throwing more touchdowns than interceptions, is keeping your nose clean. Sponsors will shy away from the kid who is a drunk all the time, but will flock to the man who is polished on and off the field.

The days of Joe Namath and Bobby Layne, swashbuckling quarterbacks who never saw a drink, or a woman, they didn't like but were praised for it, are over. Namath's career was ruined by knee injuries before it ever really took off, and perhaps his lifestyle contributed to that. Layne won championships for the Lions but wound up drinking himself out of the league as a Steeler. Both QBs are in the Hall of Fame and have championships. But this isn't the 1950s, 60s and 70s anymore.

Peyton Manning had his moments in college, but he cleaned up his act in the NFL and is now, even at 38, one of the biggest pitchmen in the NFL. Tom Brady, a tabloid target due to his high-profile relationships and subsequent marriage, has, by and large, kept a polished image off the field.

But, on the other side of the spectrum, there was Ryan Leaf, who didn't play well, popped off the media one too many times and wound up in trouble for drugs. There was Matt Leinart, who was a celebrity while playing for USC and leading the team to multiple national championships, partying with A-list celebrities and dating actresses. But, that lifestyle caught up with him in the NFL and his spotlight faded as quickly as his on-field career did. Now, the guy can't even keep a backup job in the NFL.

Hall of Famers such as Joe Montana and Emmitt Smith have offered their unsolicited advice to Manziel about his antics. It's become a distraction.

It's up to Manziel which path he chooses. He could be another Manning, or another Leaf. He could be another Brady, or another Leinart. Manziel should benefit from playing with a guy like Hoyer, who spent his formative years as Brady's understudy and saw what it takes to become a solid NFL quarterback. But, no one can hold Manziel's hand and make him listen to Hoyer, veteran Tyler Thigpen, QB coach Dowell Loggains and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Manziel's got to own it himself.

Joe Cleveland always roots for the name on the front of the jersey and not the name on the back. Johnny Manziel is a Cleveland Brown for the foreseeable future, whether we like it or not. And, I will root for him to excel on the field because it's best for the Browns and for the City of Cleveland. If he delivers an NFL championship to Cleveland, I will gladly take back every critical statement I've made about the guy, and I hope I have the chance to do so.

But if he fails, he'll hear it worse than guys like Brandon Weeden, Derek Anderson, Tim Couch, Jeff Garcia, Brady Quinn, Colt McCoy and Charlie Frye, among others, ever did. It comes with the territory, and he better buckle up and get ready for it.

Until next time, remember that Cleveland Rocks!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Mr. Bungle?

The Cleveland Browns head coaching search was so long and exhaustive, it seemed to take on a life of it's own.

I'm sure someone created a Twitter account for the Browns' 2014 head coaching search. They've already created one for the I-480 bridge, "The Three Stooges" (the moniker bestowed upon owner Jimmy Haslam, CEO Joe Banner and general manager-in-hiding Mike Lombardi) and "The Factory of Sadness" (what comedian Mike Polk Jr. referred to FirstEnergy Stadium as during an epic rant in the midst of a forgettable 2011 season).

The national media had a field day with it, because as we all know, any chance to further embarrass Cleveland is too hard to pass up for the ESPNs of the world. The Browns organization was referred to as "toxic," among other adjectives, by coaches who dropped out of the running or various other league sources.

Finally, after 24 long days and at least 10 candidates interviewed, the Browns introduced former Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine as the 15th full-time head coach in franchise history. He also becomes the 7th full-time head coach hired since the franchise came back to Cleveland in 1999, which means Browns' head coaches last here an average of 2.2 years before they are fired or leave.

As expected, the hiring of a coach like Pettine, a widely respected coach in NFL circles who worked his way from being a great high school coach into an NFL head coach in 10 years, was universally praised. The Buffalo media and fans were upset that they were losing a coach of his caliber. Reports out of Baltimore -- where the Ravens gave him his first coaching job -- were equally favorable, as well as from New York, where Rex Ryan took Pettine with him and made him his first defensive coordinator. However, the journey to get to Pettine -- a coach the Browns could have hired three days after Rob Chudzinski was fired because his Bills did not make the playoffs -- is still a head-scratcher.

The decision to bring Pettine in and ultimately hire him is probably because Haslam took over the search himself. Unfortunately, Banner and Lombardi butchered this search from the rip, and the longer it drug out, the worse it looked for the CEO and his puppet GM.

Ultimately, the one who looks the worst (and will be blamed by the Cleveland media who never liked him to begin with) is Lombardi. When Lombardi was being touted as the Browns' next GM under Haslam and Banner, Lombardi leaked to his cronies in the national media that whoever brought him in would have their choice of either Nick Saban, Chip Kelly, Bill O'Brien or Josh McDaniels as the new head coach. He also talked up Doug Marrone, the former Syracuse head coach who wound up taking the Buffalo job and hired Pettine as his defensive coordinator. And, two coaching searches in two years later, none of those guys are the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

It appeared early on that McDaniels had the inside track on the job, to the point that many figured that it was his job to lose. Whether McDaniels withdrew after his interview because he wasn't Haslam's No. 1 candidate, or whether McDaniels was assured by Robert Kraft that he is the heir apparent whenever Bill Belichick retires (which could be within the next couple of seasons), or whether McDaniels didn't want to uproot his family after settling into the Boston area, or whether he believed that Browns job was as "toxic" as some felt, we'll never really know. It was probably a combination of all four of those reasons. At any rate, Lombardi's golden boy was out, which had to make his seat even hotter than before.

Banner brags to everyone who will listen how he found Andy Reid and turned him into a great NFL coach. Reid wasn't even a coordinator when Banner's Eagles interviewed him -- the only NFL team that did interview him -- and hired him in 1999. Reid took the Eagles to the Super Bowl and kept them relevant before he was unceremoniously fired last season. He quickly found a home in Kansas City and turned the Chiefs from the NFL's worst team into a playoff contender in one season. So, when the Browns were bringing in unknown guys like Ben McAdoo, who was Green Bay's quarterback coach, it had Banner's fingerprints all over it. McAdoo wound up becoming the offensive coordinator of the Giants, which is probably a better job for him than the head coach of the Browns.

Haslam fell in love with Adam Gase, the young Denver Broncos offensive coordinator, because of his connection to Peyton Manning. Haslam has made it clear that Manning can have a job within the Browns organization as soon as his playing career is over if he would like it. The two became close because of their University of Tennessee connections, and as Manning praised the young offensive guru, the more interested Haslam became. But Gase never interviewed with the Browns. First, he declined interview requests during the first week because he wanted focus on his team's run to the playoffs. Then, after the Broncos reached the Super Bowl, he finally got around to telling Haslam that he might as well not even wait until Feb. 3 to interview him because he wasn't going to take the job.

Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who bears a striking resemblance to Pettine, did interview during that first week and quickly became a hot target as his Seahawks made their run to the Super Bowl. But, after spending several days with Pettine last week and dragging things out, it became clear that the Browns had a choice to make.

Do they give Pettine the job, who said that if he wasn't going to get the offer, he would take himself out of the running to be fair to the Bills? Or, do they wait for the Super Bowl to over and offer Quinn the job? Either choice would have been good. However, it would have been a gamble to wait for Quinn. While Quinn said he was interested in the Browns job, a lot could change between now and the Super Bowl. Quinn and the Seahawks could win the Super Bowl and Seattle could offer him more money and a better job title to stay put. He could simply determine he loved coaching his young defense in Seattle and wanted to stay. Or, he could say (like Gase did) that he didn't feel ready to be a head coach yet and would wait. If the Browns waited and Quinn said no, it could have been fatal. Pettine would not be a fallback choice. Most of the other candidates they interviewed either took different jobs or simply took themselves out of the running.

They may have had to settle for Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, ex-Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano or former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel (who was gaining a grass-roots push to be considered a candidate from local football fans). The hiring of either Koetter or Schiano, who were both interviewed days before Pettine got the job, would have went over like a fart in church, and hiring Tressel would have looked embarrassing because of the fans' push for the team to hire him.

Banner and Lombardi appeared to be so sold on Pettine that one of them (probably Lombardi) reached back out to McDaniels the day before Pettine was hired to see if he was serious about taking himself out of the running. And, Banner wasn't shy about his praise of Quinn during the Pettine introduction, but said they couldn't risk waiting until after the Super Bowl when they had a coach in their laps that they really liked. Also, like he's been at just about every major press conference, Lombardi was conspicuous by his absence at the Pettine press conference.

Hopefully, Pettine becomes the head coach who can lift this franchise too the next level. Pettine, who bears a resemblance to former pro wrestler and NFL player Bill Goldberg, won skeptical fans over when he talked about holding players accountable for their mistakes, how they needed to "bloody their nose a bit" if they wanted to compete for an AFC North title, and how nothing he could say in his introductory press conference would really win over the fan base, that they'd have to do their talking with how they play on the field and win games. By saying he wasn't about winning press conferences and more about winning games, he essentially won the press conference.

Pettine has a reputation for being a no-nonsense kind of coach. His players respect him, fear him and love him. His nickname is "Blunt Force Trauma," which had to get Browns fans fired up. Jets linebacker Bart Scott, who followed Ryan and Pettine to New York from Baltimore, couldn't stop praising him. And, while the Bills went 6-10 this past season, it certainly wasn't the defense's fault. Pettine turned the Bills into the hybrid 3-4 defense that Haslam and Banner prefer (the same defense that Ray Horton ran here last year) and got tremendous results. He coaxed a comeback season from Mario Williams by lining him up both as a down lineman and at linebacker, depending on the situation. He turned Kiko Alonso into the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year.

And, while Browns fans remember the Bills giving up 37 points in that Thursday Night game in Cleveland, they forget that 14 of those points were the result of a punt return by Travis Benjamin and an interception return by T.J. Ward. And, Brandon Weeden only threw two truly great passes in that game, and they were on back-to-back plays and resulted in a long touchdown by Josh Gordon.

Pettine's first challenge was hiring a staff. He was able to get a few of his Bills' assistants to come to Cleveland and be his defensive staff, such as Jim O'Neil as the new defensive coordinator, and retained Chris Tabor to be the special teams coordinator. It appears, as of this writing, that former Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is the front-runner to be Pettine's offensive coordinator, with Oakland running backs coach John DeFilippo and Dallas offensive coordinator Bill Callahan also as contenders.

But the hiring of Pettine and Haslam's increased role in the search may have put the target squarely on the backs of both Banner and Lombardi. Banner attempted to alleviate some of the tension by making a "Three Stooges" joke to start Pettine's press conference, saying that "since Mike and I are Larry and Moe, we needed a Curly. And there's not many Curly's around, but we found one in Mike Pettine." The joke worked, but I'm sure Banner's seat is getting a bit warmer than it was.

The team announcing that Ray Farmer, the assistant GM, would not be taking the Miami GM job only seems to solidify that that Lombardi will be the next one fired. Farmer's interview with Haslam was so good two seasons ago that he created a position for Farmer on the staff, essentially promoting Lombardi from VP of Player Personnel to GM so there could be an assistant GM.

The bizarre saga of receiver Davone Bess only makes Lombardi look worse, since it was he who traded for him and then suggested re-signing him to a lengthy contract extension. Banner admitted that the Browns did not know about Bess' arrest and hospitalization a month before the trade was made, which means that somebody did not do their due diligence on the subject. Sure, you can blame the Dolphins and Jeff Ireland (who is out of job now) for withholding that information and dealing the Browns some damaged goods. But, it's buyer beware in the NFL.

Many of Lombardi's moves during the season deserve to be questioned. The signing of a wide receiver of the Green Bay practice squad, who showed up to Berea with a torn ACL, was a bad one. Because the Browns purchased a player off an opposing practice squad, they had to (by rule) keep that player on the 53-man roster for three weeks. So, that player took up a roster spot for three weeks before he could be placed on injured reserve. Not very good.

Last year, there was dischord between the front office and the coaching staff and the result was a 4-12 season, a seven-game losing streak to end the season and the dismissal of the head coach, the offensive coordinator and the defensive coordinator. I'm sure Haslam will now hold Banner and his cronies more accountable for the support they give Pettine and his staff, because the national perception was that they did little to support Chud and his staff.

Pettine will get more than one year for sure, unless the Browns go 0-16 (God, let's hope not). The fanbase is restless, and many loyal season ticket holders are ready to put their wallet where their mouths are and not renew. The Browns will have a remodeled stadium next year, a new coach and coaching staff and some new players, even perhaps a new quarterback (although Pettine loves Brian Hoyer and said he'd open training camp as the starter). If there was ever a make-or-break season for the Cleveland Browns, the 2014 season is it.

It seems unlikely that Cleveland fans would treat the Browns like the Indians, where years of years of dischord between the team's front office and the fan base resulted in low attendance numbers for a team that had hired a marquee manager and won 93 games, even qualifying for the postseason. While season ticket and advance ticket sales may spike this season, it probably won't be anything earth shattering. It will be up to the Indians to prove to the fans that they are, indeed, committed to fielding a winning product every single season.

The Browns have never had to prove anything to the fanbase, other than just show up in July for training camp in those brown jerseys and orange helmets and then take the field in early September. That's pretty much it. The fans have desperately proved to the NFL that they can support a team after it was stolen from them in 1995, but I think we've proved enough. We've proved that we're extremely passionate about the Cleveland Browns. We're very angry and not shy about spewing it on message boards or on Twitter or Facebook or in blogs such as this one. But, we continue to go back like lemmings on their death march to the Stadium every Sunday because we hope that "this year's gonna be the year we turn it around."

At least with the Indians, fans are still passionate about them. Hatred or criticism can be construed as interest, and I'm sure the Dolans and Mark Shapiro do that. With the Cavs, the team has been so bad for four years and continues to struggle that the fans have begun to not care about them -- just like they did before LeBron James was dropped on our doorstep in 2003.

2014 is a big year for Cleveland sports. The Indians have to prove to their skeptical fans that last season wasn't a fluke (like 2007 was) and sustain winning. The Browns have to prove that their heads aren't up their collective asses and actually put a winning product on the field for once. The Cavs just have to regain their relevance locally, and trading for Luol Deng was a good start, but it hasn't translated into wins. They may have to do something drastic, like running GM Chris Grant and head coach Mike Brown out of town after the season is over. Bringing Brown back three years after firing him wasn't a very popular move locally to begin with, and it's only gotten worse as the team plays worse.

In case you were wondering about the title to this blog, it's a reference to Mike Patton (whose name sounds very similar to Mike Pettine's). Patton is known mainstream as the former lead singer of Faith No More, who had that hit song "Epic" back in the early 1990s. But he also (at least to fans of music and heavier music) is known as the front man for his side project, Mr. Bungle. He also wore a Mr. Bungle T-shirt in the video for "Epic," which was played everyday on MTV for about a year.

Basically, Joe Cleveland can only hope that I'm not referring to Mike Pettine as "Mr. Bungle" when the games are being played this season. Because the Browns front office, while also living up to their "Three Stooges" moniker, really Mr. Bungled this coaching search from the rip. Hopefully, they stumbled into their diamond in the rough, because I don't know how much more of this we can take as Browns fans.

Until next time, remember that Cleveland Rocks!