Monday, April 30, 2007

Browns Score Big in 2007 Draft

Since 1999 the Cleveland Browns have been plagued with the sort of inefficiency that can only be attributed to a lousy offensive line. That was an issue Phil Savage hoped to address last year when the Browns acquired LeCharles Bentley through free agency but the nasty center went down with an injury that might end the former Buckeye’s career.

Romeo Crennel improved the defense last year but the offense took a big step back thanks in large part to poor blocking but Charlie Frye’s erratic play also hurt the team. With so many weapons available it was clear that the Browns needed better play from the QB position.

The Browns couldn’t accept the terms the Raiders offered for the top spot and a crack at the gigantic JaMarcus Russell and when they looked at the possibilities from that third spot it was hard to pass on a lineman as dominant as Joe Thomas. Surely the Browns were planning to settle for a second round quarterback and hoped that he would thrive behind a solid line.

But nobody expected Brady Quinn to fall past the Dolphins. If one team needed to address its QB situation in the draft it was Miami but the Dolphins saw homerun potential in Ted Ginn Jr. and opted to pass on the highly touted Quinn to take him. Quinn watched a lot of teams skip over him to address other needs.

As soon as Miami passed on Quinn, the Browns went into a frenzy trying to coax teams out of their pick so they could snag Quinn. Finally Dallas gave up the 22nd pick which was a shock given the fact that the verdict is not in on Tony Romo. Cleveland managed to head off Baltimore and pick the player most scouts thought was the best QB in the draft. Russell might have more upside but Quinn seems ready to play and with Romeo Crennel stealing pages out of New England’s play book, Quinn might be more ready to play for the Browns than anybody knows.

Cleveland gave up a lot to get him but it’s hard to second guess the decision. Quinn is often compared to Tom Brady because of the Charlie Weis connection but Quinn is more athletic. In his first two seasons at Notre Dame, Brady Quinn was a mobile playmaker who demonstrated a lot of toughness. Under Weis he became a smooth passer with great awareness and patience. Quinn wasn’t exactly surrounded by great talent. JaMarcus Russell saw two of his receivers get drafted early, Quinn’s mates from South Bend weren’t exactly first day material. Quinn might be better than everybody thinks.

Regardless of what might happen, Cleveland demonstrated a serious commitment to winning. By being so aggressive in this years draft the Browns are not only planning on contending next year, they are building a youthful core of talented players that will help this team win in the future. A lot can happen in the coming months. Players could fold under pressure and studs could go down with injuries. The point is that the Browns are in it to win it.

Friday, April 27, 2007

For months the hype has been building and now the speculation about who will go where has become a shrill crescendo with Mel Kiper Jr. and his disturbing hair leading the masses. Before the draft everybody seems to have all the answers. Mock drafts have been completed and supposed picks have been scrutinized. If history is any indication of what to expect the pundits will be wrong. All it takes is one unexpected pick and the entire house of cards comes crashing down.

Last year the Houston Texans eschewed hometown hero Vince Young and collegiate superhero Reggie Bush in favor of defensive end Mario Williams. It wasn't exactly a bad idea given the volatile nature of so-called skill players who try to jump from college to the pros but the Texans could have traded down a few picks and landed Williams. They would have secured an extra pick or two late in the draft and saved a few million in bonus money.

This year everybody is certain that the Raiders will take rocket launcher JaMarcus Russell with the first pick in the draft. The Raiders do indeed need help at the QB position but a sterling young athlete like Russell is going to need lots of help if he's going to shine. The Raiders also need a receiver who is willing to actually play in real games and they need help on the line too. They spent their top pick last year on burly Robert Gallery but the highly touted lineman out of Iowa struggled at the left tackle spot all season long.

Al Davis is squirrelly. He loves to play psychological games even when they aren't necessary. He could draft himself with the top pick just to make headlines. That's probably not going to happen but Davis might pass on Russell just because everybody thinks they know what the Raiders will do. Some think that Davis might trade down but unless somebody pulls a Mike Ditka and gives the Raiders every pick they have, it's highly unlikely Davis will step out of the limelight. The Raiders will probably wait until their time is ready to expire before announcing their pick just to milk every minute of camera time.

The top four team in the draft are so bad drafting the high is not going to help. The Raiders could use new blood at every position. If they trade down and pick up an few extra selections in the middle rounds they could build a strong core of players who will support a winning team for years to come. The Detroit Lions are bad but they should be prohibited from making any first round selections until Matt Millen has been bound, gagged and dropped into the murky waters of the Detroit River.

The Browns and Buccaneers tied for the third pick but the Gruden lost the coin toss and ended up with the fourth selection. It doesn't really matter since the two teams think they have opposing needs. Of course both of those teams are further away from being competitive than they think. Unfortunately the value of their selections won't be evident until Detroit reveals its pick. Then the rest of the league can calculate the value of the remaining players and make an offer. Trading down might not be as attractive for these two because the offers might not be worthwhile.

The Browns are in an interesting spot. Should receiver Calvin Johnson remain available at the number three spot, the Browns will be getting calls from other teams. The Buccaneers might be forced to swap picks with the Browns just to ensure they have a chance at acquiring a big time play maker. Based on all the current evaluations, Calvin Johnson is the one player who will be able to step into the NFL and have an immediate impact. He's big, strong, fast and has the sheer athleticism to beat the best corners in the league. If he improves his game in training camp he could be the best receiver in the NFL as a rookie.

Adrian Peterson is the only other impact player available in the draft but there's no guarantee he'll be great. Unlike Johnson, he doesn't possess an obvious physical advantage. Peterson could be the next Larry Jonson or even a LaDainian Tomlinson but he could also be another Curtis Enis, KiJana Carter or William Green. So many teams have been burned by outstanding collegiate backs that it's hard to blame a team for passing on Peterson. Besides, the key to a great running game is in the front five. If a team has a great line they'll move the ball regardless of who is back there.

Like most drafts, once you get out of the top five it's a guessing game. Carolina's Steve Smith is one of the most dynamic players in the NFL but he was drafted in the third round. At 5'9" and 180 pounds, he's too small to be an elite receiver but somehow he defies conventional wisdom. Tom Brady was a sixth round draft pick who wasn't athletic enough to succeed in the modern era. Three Super Bowl victories and a pretty nifty efficiency rating has him bound for the Hall of Fame in a few years.

Joe Montana was too small; Jerry Rice was too slow; Dan Marino was too dumb; Warren Moon was too black…many great players were overlooked in the draft. It makes you wonder why so much effort is put into analyzing these players. It's hard too tell who's going to rise to the challenge of excelling at the next level. Scouts and analysts make a science out of the process but in the end everything seems to come down to hard work and good coaching. Tom Brady is successful because he works hard and he's in the right system, Tim Couch was a failure because the opposite was true.

Teams always hunt for the "sleeper" a player who isn't on anybody's radar duribng the draft but eventually goes on to break records. Too often those "sleepers" are the product of a superior environment. Experts give Mike Shanahan credit for finding great running backs in the middle of the draft but the reality is that the Broncos have a great offensive line. Notice how the running backs suddenly become less productive when the line isn't healthy?

Bad teams never seem to find the mythical sleeper. In fact bad teams are a graveyard for draft picks. Tim Couch was a "can't miss" selection. Now he's out of the NFL. His confidence was rattled in his stint in Cleveland and now he's nowhere to be found. The Bengals destroyed their fair share of QB's but Marvin Lewis resisted the temptation of throwing Carson Palmer to the Sharks. He held the top pick back until the rest of the team was playing better and put Palmer in the middle of a decent offense.

That's why the best tonic for a bad team isn't the top selection, but a number of picks later in the draft. A team with two third round picks will likely find a stout lineman to shore up that front line. Until the weaknesses are properly addressed one or two star players won't change the won/lost ratio.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Stern needs to put an end to tanking

David Stern takes a lot of abuse. Black sports columnists have accused him of trying to "whiten" the NBA in order to cater to the Caucasian audience while their white counterparts have lambasted him for allowing the negative aspects of the so-called Hip Hop culture to shape the image of the NBA. He just can't win.

Lost in the discussion is the fact that Stern has managed to save the NBA from imploding. Even though television ratings are down, David Stern has managed to keep the NBA's collective head above water. The NHL is barely breathing people aren't watching the Stanley Cup finals, let alone regular season games. Nobody wants to offer the NHL a respectable television contract and many games, including the playoffs, have been forced into the realm of basic cable.
Imagine the state of the NBA if somebody like Bud Selig was at the helm. Selig inherited a sport with tremendous global appeal and vast untapped markets. Instead of tweaking the organizational structure in baseball to foster a little good natured parity, Selig has allowed money to rule and the result is dwindling fan interest. Baseball apologists will point to the recent success of small market teams but soon the Yankees, Dodgers and Mets will pick apart the likes of the Tigers, Cardinals and even the White Sox leaving recent contenders struggling to rebuild while the big market powerhouses dominate the post season.

Stern took the NBA's helm in 1984…smack dab in the middle of the Larry Bird/Magic Johnson era. The NBA was a star driven enterprise that had struggled to find an audience until Bird and Johnson entered the league. After that, Michael Jordan elevated his game and the Bulls to lofty championship status thus solidifying the trend of building the league around players.

Stern never cared for that. First, it gave the players too much power and the demand for dominant players soon fueled a crippling salary increase that decimated small market teams. Players like Shawn Kemp and Vince Carter inked huge deals and proceeded to underachieve. Nobody noticed how bad it was until Michael Jordan left. The face of the NBA went from being that of a determined champion to that of the demanding prim Donna who talked better than he played.

It took some time, but slowly, Stern guided the NBA toward the team-oriented concepts embodied by the San Antonio Spurs and the Detroit Pistons. Stern tried to take the focus off of petulant athletes like Allen Iverson and draw attention to unselfish warriors like Jason Kidd. The push was some what successful and is the reason the NBA is still active.

Now Stern's got to face another problem. The current lottery system the league uses to prevent teams from dropping games on purpose is failing. Several team clearly tanked their seasons in hopes of securing one of the top two picks in the draft. With Greg Oden and Kevin Durant looking like future superstars and several other players promising to be more than serviceable, sacrificing the season for a low lottery pick makes sense.

Part of the problem is that the lottery has been weighted to all but guarantee the worst team in the league one of the top two picks but the serious issue is the NBA's insistence that all potential draft picks have at least a one year buffer between their high school graduation and their professional careers. This has forced players to play a season at the college level which has given NBA scouts a better look at their prospects. Now there's less risk. The Cleveland Cavaliers and the NBA held its breath while waiting to see if Lebron James was up to the challenge because the jump from high school to the NBA is huge. How would Lebron fare in a world where he wasn't a physical freak of nature?

Kevin Durant and Greg Oden would have been top picks regardless of college but their success at the collegiate level has erased any doubts about their abilities. More over, the extra year of college revealed that Mike Conley, Jr. is ready to play the point at the NBA level. Out of high school he might have drifted to the late first or early second round but after a fantastic run in big time college ball, Conley might prove to have a bigger immediate impact than his massive teammate. Oden's great but needs to hone his game. NBA scouts don't think Conley has too many weaknesses, a conclusion made possible by a year of college hoops.

Before, a lottery pick could be a bust…and an expensive one at that. Drafting players out of high school was tricky. Nobody knew what to expect and, with the exception of Lebron James, even the players who attained NBA stardom after making that leap took several years to do it. Kobe Bryant struggled early in his NBA career and Kevin Garnett needed some time to muscle up. The year of college is so significant, some experts believe that the Cleveland Cavaliers might have passed on Lebron in favor of Carmelo Anthony if Lebron had not been from the Cleveland Area. The hometown hero factor sealed that deal.

Stern can't let teams tank in order to gain an advantage through the draft. The NBA can't endure the scandal of intentional losses. It's so pervasive that columnists and fans are torn between being disgusted in the practice or applauding their team's desire to improve. Teams should never be rewarded for something so unethical.

The answer is twofold. Stern must work with the Players' Association to draft provisions that allow teams to cut over paid under-achievers. Teams should be careful about who they throw money at, but to often players get complacent when they're in the middle of a big contract and that hurts not only the team, but the league as well. It fosters the belief that NBA players are greedy, selfish and lazy. Simply giving teams such an option would discourage the behavior. The argument against it would be that teams could dump players for reasons other than effort but if a reverse arbitration system was established every cut would have to pass muster.

That allows teams to solve problems through the open market which diminishes the need for intentional losses. However a team at the bottom of the standings might still see the benefit in passing the "L" column to ensure that top pick. That's where the NBA needs to address the availability of fresh talent. Generally there are only three or four real impact players available in the draft in any given year. That's why teams want to as many lottery balls as they can. Which is why the NBA should dump the lottery: just give the worst team the first pick….After the second provision is implemented.

Lebron's popularity in Cleveland drives home the importance of home town heroes. Fans fell in love with Lebron instantly and that love would have been there regardless of Lebron's early performance. His success makes everybody else love him, but Cleveland's adoration is unconditional. So give those highly rated players the option of signing with their home town team. The player could choose between where he was born, where he played high school ball or, if he played at the college level for a minimum three years, his college town.

That would give Greg Oden, for example the right to sign with the Pacers before the draft. The benefiting team would have to sign that player to the maximum contract and sacrifice their own first round pick. They would also be limited to one hometown exemption every three years. That would coincide with the typical rookie contract and prevent players from manipulating the system to opt out of the draft. How excited would Indy be if Greg Oden came back home to play for the Pacers? Would the Wizards see their attendance numbers increase if Kevin Durant wanted to play in his hometown?

More importantly it would make teams think twice about tanking. The Boston Celtics probably wouldn't have seen much benefit in losing games down the stretch if there was a distinct possibility that Greg Oden and Kevin Durant might sign with their home town teams three days before the draft.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Baseball's records trumped by scandals

Barry Bonds has passed Babe Ruth and set his sites on Hammering Hank. He might not make it this year but, barring legal issues, Bonds will pass that record. If he has to limp out to the plate for five more seasons, Bonds will keep playing until he hits 756. It's a given. Fans don't seem particularly fascinated with this inevitability.

It's fitting because Aaron's record has long been overshadowed by Ruth's even though Ruth hit 41 fewer home runs. The fans who hold Ruth in higher esteem insist that the slight is not a racial issue but rather a testament to the fact that Ruth set the record in fewer at bats. Some fans will even go so far as to argue that the talent in baseball has become increasingly diluted since the days Ruth played and that Aaron's accomplishments would have been impossible if he had played in Ruth's era.

They're correct because Aaron would have been forbidden to play. That fact alone invalidates everything Ruth did. Though it was not his fault, Ruth never faced black pitchers nor was his assault on the record books challenged by black sluggers. When you look at the influence black players have had in baseball, how can one reasonable argue that what happened before Jackie Robinson actually matters? It seems that the talent pool got deeper once black players entered the league.

Think of the best players in the game today. Think about the best players in the game over the last 50 years. Where would baseball be without black and Hispanic players? Granted Hispanic players weren't specifically excluded from baseball but teams limited the number of Latino or Chicano players they carried. Now we have Japanese and Korean players entering the league and doing quite well. Baseball is pulling the best players from all around the world, but back in the 1920's it didn't even feature the best players in the country. Some remarkable white athletes even eschewed professional sports for real jobs because professional athletics was not an admirable profession. Now the minimum annual salary is deep into six figures and multimillion dollar contracts are the norm. Back in the 1920's it was foolish to pursue a career in sports, now it is foolish not to.

Ruth changed the game by bucking tradition and going for the long ball. Before he played the game was still rooted in the conservative style of play that was introduced back in the 1860's. Players were trained to hit the ball low and advance along the bases as subsequent hitters followed suit. The game was methodical. Ruth came along and hit the ball in the air. As other players took his cue the records he set became more attainable. With Hack Wilson and Jimmie Foxx coming quite close to hitting 60 home runs in the 30's. Ruth was an impressive hitter but the disparity between Ruth and the rest of the league had more to do with the nature of the game than it did talent.

Aaron was a better all around player than Ruth. He was an effective base runner and a solid fielder. His record breaking performance suffers criticism because he played more games than Ruth and finished his career as a designated hitter but he broke Ruth's record with a National League team and did so amidst death threats, hate mail and facing the pressure of being a role model for an entire race.

Still, it's unfair to compare the two. Aaron broke Ruth's record almost 40 years after Ruth played his last game. Aaron was born one year before Ruth finished his career after playing just 28 games in the 1935 season and 13 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball. They played in different eras and might as well have played on different planets.

Now we have Barry Bonds ready to inch past Aaron in the record books and again it's a different ball game. We are more than 30 years removed from Aaron's final at bat and the game has changed tremendously. Now baseball players are encouraged to lift weights. The muscles everybody once thought would slow down swings and limit flexibility are now an asset and that revelation has made the use of steroids beneficial to many players.

Bonds has resisted the designated hitter as a means to prolong his career but he has found other things. Human Growth Hormone stimulates tissue growth and increases lean muscle mass. Barry Bonds looks like a bloated cartoon image of a brawny baseball player. He claims he's legal but his name has been implicated in several scandals involving the sales, distribution and application of illegal performance enhancing substances. Back in the 1970's Aaron might have been popping pills to find a little extra energy but Bonds has gone beyond the use of uppers and found a veritable fountain of youth. You can make the argument that his career and productivity have been artificially lengthened by modern medical science. Those are advantages Aaron and Ruth didn't have.

There is the argument that Bonds doesn't have an advantage over his fellow players. Roger Clemens is well past the age a pitcher should be hurling 95 mph fastballs but he's still pushing smoke past hitters half his age. He's remarkably fit and seems even more formidable at an age where his predecessors learned more breaking pitches and took a seat in the bullpen. It wouldn't be a surprise to anybody if Clemens tested positive for steroids. Randy Johnson still throws remarkably hard and Curt Schilling is still eating up innings as a starting pitcher in spite of sustaining some pretty serious injuries late in his career.

Other hitters have been implicated in steroid scandals. Gary Matthews Jr. emerged as a great player in 2006 after floundering in mediocrity for six years at the major league level. Then in 2007 his name surfaced in a steroid scandal. Matthews insists that he's clean but it's quite a coincidence that after 11 years in professional baseball Matthews had his best season when he was connected with steroid investigation. Maybe there isn't enough evidence to support criminal charges but it certainly looks suspicious.

Does that mean that the game was pure back in the old days? Not really. The steroid scandals are the result of the modern player's commitment to performance excellence. Old school heroes like Babe Ruth were selfish booze hounds who could have been better athletes. Mickey Mantle's career was shortened by his substance abuse problems. You simply didn't see people put in the effort that today's players put in. The science of exercise physiology has taught us that everybody can become bigger, stronger and faster which will ultimately make them better. Unfortunately steroids can make those gains easier to attain and even increase the athletes potential to realize those gains.

That argument often makes people wonder what Ruth and Mantle would have been capable of if they would have had access to today's exercise technology and the steroids that go with it. It's easy: They would have been superheroes. Ruth might have stolen 60 bases to go with his 60 home runs and probably would have crested 70 home runs at least once in his career. But that's assuming he would have been the only guy putting in that kind of effort. If the pitchers in his day would have had access to the training and conditioning techniques today's pitchers enjoy, Ruth might have struggled to make contact. Of course, we can only wonder how Ruth would have fared if black players had been allowed to play against him.

And so you have it. Bonds' accomplishments won't resonate as much as Aaron's because Bonds is on steroids. Aaron's record doesn't matter as much as Ruth's because Aaron played more games. Ruth's feat should be second guessed because he didn't have to face black players.

What does this teach us? Baseball places too much emphasis on numbers. We're led to believe that the game might change but that the numbers will never lie. That's simply not true. Babe Ruth was a great player in his day but his numbers don't prove that he is better or worse than Barry Bonds. They both have their demons and we can make a valid case for either of them to be stricken from the record books but what would that accomplish? Then we'd just have a new set of numbers to question. Baseball's records simply don't matter. They don't tell the whole story. So we should look beyond the numbers and think about the context in which they were attained. In my book, that makes Aaron's record more compelling. He faced the best players in the game but did so before those players were inclinded to take steroids.