Monday, September 29, 2008

Football, Ohio Style

Rumor has it that Ohio is home to two professional football teams. I was skeptical about this until I did a little research and discovered that there are two NFL franchises in Ohio. As luck would have it they played each other yesterday. So being an Ohioan I tuned in, hoping to learn more about these elusive teams. I don’t know what they were playing, but whatever it was sure didn’t look like professional football to me.

In all seriousness, the NFL has to step in and do something about the Bengals. Even though the Browns stink this year, they did go 10-6 last season and they are taking strides to become more competitive. The Bengals are a disgrace to the NFL. There are teams that fare worse but the Bengals’ legacy is consistency. The Bengals went 12-4 in 1988 and made it to the Super Bowl where they lost to the 49ers 20-16. Since then the Bengals have only managed to post two winning seasons. Coaches have come and gone and so have great players. The Bengals always drift just below the surface of mediocrity.

There’s a pretty good chance the Marvin Lewis will be fired either during or after this season but he is not the problem. The problem is Mike Brown. Mike is the son of the legendary Paul Brown. Mike took over control of the team when Paul passed away in 1991 and since then Mike has tried to run the team the way his father did. This presents two problems: 1. He’s not his father, and 2. Times have changed.

The Bengals started experiencing problems shortly after the 1988 season. Paul Brown struggled with the attitudes and demands of modern era players. When the collective bargaining agreement gave players more freedom in choosing teams and negotiating contracts, the Bengals began to lose ground in the free agent market. Mike Brown simply continued his father’s path of resistance. The problem with the Bengals is that there are teams who do worse each season so nobody really notices just how flawed the franchise is. The Bengals have finished a number of campaigns with an 8-8 record leading people to believe that they’re on the right track. They aren’t.

The Bengals won the AFC North in 2005 with and 11-5 record. Then Carson Palmer went down with a knee injury in the Wild Card game and the Bengals had a convenient excuse for failing to advance. They also had a great excuse for performing poorly in 2006. The Bengals always have a great excuse for coming up short. The problem is that people accept those excuses and it breeds a culture of failure.

The Browns are a different story. Even though the Browns carry a rich football tradition the current incarnation of the team was born in 1999. A number of very poor decisions were made over the first five years and the current front office is just now starting to sort out the mess left behind by the likes of Carmen Policy, Dwight Clark and Butch Davis. Romeo Crennel seems to be out of his league as a head coach but General Manager Phil Savage knows what he’s doing and the Browns finally appear to be headed in the right direction.

That being said, one has to question why Brady Quinn wasn’t given the nod against the Bengals this past Sunday. Derek Anderson has been playing poorly dating back to the end of the 2007 season. His passes tend to float and he telegraphs his intentions to the defensive backs. Anderson is on track to throw for twice as many interceptions as touchdowns and he is clearly not reading defenses. The Browns are 1-3 to start a season many people felt would be a very good campaign for them.

The Browns were smart to hold on to Anderson after the way he performed last year, but Anderson had a lot of work to do. He needed to hone his accuracy, perfect his ability to check down receivers and learn how to call audibles to exploit defensive alignments. Anderson failed on all counts. He has proven himself to be what scouts thought he would be all along: a fairly talented back up quarterback with a soft touch and a slow delivery.

Quinn might not be the answer but the Browns need to know. If Anderson is incapable of stepping up and being an elite QB in the NFL, the Browns need to see if Quinn is. Anderson has had four games to put it together and he’s failed. The Browns have no choice but to hand the ball to Quinn and see if he can rise to the challenge. If Quinn proves to be a bust then the Browns need to take a long hard look at the quarterbacks who will be available in the upcoming draft and make a move. The Browns can’t afford to be like the Bengals and make excuses for themselves. There must be a sense of urgency.

The Bengals are in the midst of a 20 year slump. This January will mark the 20th anniversary of their last Super Bowl appearance and 1990 is the last time the Bengals won a playoff game. That’s just unacceptable.

The Browns aren’t much better with zero Super Bowl appearances in the team’s entire history but in their defense this team isn’t even 10 years old yet. People sometimes forget that the team that played in Cleveland for all those years packed up shop and moved to Baltimore. It’s disappointing to see the Browns fail to improve on last year’s 10-6 record but comparing Cleveland’s legacy of failure to Cincinnati’s is unfair. Both teams need to make some serious changes. Both teams owe their fans better but the Bengals have elevated underachieving to an art. If they can’t right the ship the NFL should step in and reorganize the franchise.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

St. Jim deflects blame

Well, the Terrelle Pryor era has officially begun in Columbus Ohio. After enduring a vicious spanking at the hands of the mighty USC Trojans, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel announced that the Buckeyes would give the true freshman QB a serious look in the week leading up to a snoozer against Troy. Pryor ended up taking all but the final two snaps of the game. He set a Buckeye record for a freshman by throwing for four touchdowns and Buckeye fans are excited at what this all means.

What it means is Ohio State will lose at least two more games. Look, Troy stinks. I know that Troy made a name for itself by playing tough against rank opponents over the past few years but even after stinking up the field in a win over Ohio and stinking up ABC’s prime time broadcast of the eventual bloodletting, Ohio State was still heavily favored by odds makers heading into the game against Troy. Having watched Ohio State and Todd Boeckman perform against inferior opponents much of last year, Pryor really didn’t do anything special against Troy. Boeckman might have thrown for five touchdowns against that team.

What people don’t realize is that Ohio State’s problem is not at the quarterback position. Todd Boeckman looked terrible against USC but that was because USC knew when he was in the game the Buckeyes were probably going to pass. Tressel put a target on Boeckman’s back by inserting Terrelle Pryor into the game in certain situations.

It was obvious early on that Boeckman’s rhythm was off, but the OSU coaches kept throwing him to the wolves. Then on Monday, in front of mobs of angry fans who finally had enough of nationally televised disappointments, Jim Tressel announced that Todd Boeckman was going to see his role reduced. Basically Jim Tressel put 100% of the blame for the USC loss on Boeckman. He didn’t say it, but actions speak louder than words.

The problem is that Boeckman didn’t do anything wrong. Tressel’s QBs have a history of struggling in big games. His teams don’t play with any energy when the pressure is on. The plays that are called are slow to develop and predictable, fullbacks and tight ends are underutilized and the defense waits for contact to come to them rather than attacking the ball. Ohio State looks good against inferior teams because Ohio State still recruits some of the most talented players in the country, but when the level of talent is close to being equal Ohio State looks slow, stupid and completely overrated. That’s a result of coaching.

Jim Tressel is a putz. He’s quiet, reserved, stiff and methodical. Somehow he manages to recruit great players but the guy shows no visible signs of passion or intensity. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes a leader needs to have ice water in his veins, but with Tressel it seems more like tepid pond water. Ohio State is stagnant and that’s because Tressel’s personality dominates everything.

Now Todd Boeckman leaves a lot to be desired as a QB, but a lot of that falls on the coaching staff. Coaches are supposed help players get better from one year to the next. Todd Boeckman has been with the Buckeyes for a long time. He was a prized recruit out of high school who wanted to play at Ohio State so badly he spurned scholarship offers from other schools to wait in the wings. Tressel rewarded him for his loyalty by effectively benching him.

That’s not so bad except for the fact that Ohio State’s failures against USC went much deeper. The running backs weren’t reading their blocks, the linemen weren’t picking up the stunts, the receivers weren’t adjusting routes and the defense looked pathetic. The failure was universal. The only players showing any passion that evening were Chris Wells who was sidelined with an injury, and Terrelle Pryor who hasn’t been around long enough to be assimilated into the hive. Give him another year and he’ll be as boring and uneventful as a used dryer sheet. Just like Jim Tressel.

Instead of kicking a diligent player to the curb, Tressel should have taken his assistant coaches to task. Co-defensive coordinators Luke Fickel and Jim Heacock have presided over one of the most talent laden defenses in the country over the past four years. In spite of all that talent, the defense gets worked in big games. Florida and LSU shredded that defense with short passes in consecutive BCS title games, Illinois upset the Buckeyes with a mobile QB and USC just humiliated the front seven. The Buckeyes don’t blitz effectively and seldom use stunts to create any kind of a rush. It’s almost as if the coaches can’t believe that ranked teams don’t buckle in awe of the talent the Buckeyes put on the field. Maybe that’s because the Buckeyes spend so much time playing the likes of Akron, Ohio and Youngstown State that awe is usually the response they see.

Jim Bollman is charged with overseeing the offense. He’s technically the offensive coordinator but everybody knows that Tressel calls the shots. It’s his offense, Bollman coaches the line and kisses Tressel’s ass. That’s what they pay him for. Still, Bollman has squandered tremendous talent. Even though Ohio State’s linemen seem incapable of adjusting to stunts and picking up blitzes, the NFL is always happy to see Ohio State offensive linemen on the board. The talent is there, the talent is deep, the talent is wasted. That’s Bollman’s fault.

Tressel should have taken his coaches to task in the wake of another nationally televised failure but he has spent so much time surrounding himself with like-minded yes men that he realizes that acknowledging their failures would be admitting to his own. Tressel’s too arrogant to do that. Tressel wrote the book on winning (at least a book) and he will not admit that he’s in over his head or that the game has passed him by. He still thinks that 2002 national title actually means something even though Ohio State had the 107th best offense in the country and won the game over Miami courtesy of a suspicious call or two.

Until Tressel can own up to his deficiencies Ohio State will continue to be a second rate team. Sure, they’ll win 9 or 10 games a season but that will be against in-state rivals and Big 10 fodder. Ohio State has had several opportunities to prove itself on the national stage against the best teams in the country and it has failed. That’s Jim Tressel’s legacy and you can’t hide that behind Todd Boeckman.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Are you ready for some football?

I don't know who what genius decided to shuffle Monday Night Football over to ESPN but considering the fact that Disney owns both ABC and ESPN I'm pretty sure the culprit was Goofy. ABC took a giant risk when they agreed preempt regular programming to feature on marquee game on Monday night. Prime time. Back in 1970 there was no such thing as basic cable. The Big Three ruled the airwaves and the other two networks had already passed on Rozelle's plan.

MNF proved to be so successful that other networks quickly altered their programming so as not to waste good shows on a losing ratings battle. Monday Night Football was an institution the dramatically increased the NFL's appeal. In the 1980s Monday Night Football was the original must see TV. Some of the most memorable moments in football history occurred during the broadcast. ABC spared no expense. The production quality of the Monday night game was for superior to anything else in sports. The best production team, the most skilled camera men and the most appealing broadcasters were hired to enhance the experience.

Not only that, but Monday Night Football was a boon to the city hosting the game. ABC's crew featured stories about the hosting city, and promoted the culture of the team's community. Monday Night Football had the atmosphere of the Super Bowl. Perhaps not as big, but every bit as exciting.

Mistakes were made. Dennis Miller was not a good fit in the booth and the entire nation witnessed the demise of one of the must enduring sports broadcasters in history. Howard Cosell is remembered for uttering the unfortunate expression "somebody let that little monkey get loose" but his chronic alcohol abuse and erratic behavior led to his dismissal. However, Monday Night Football will be remembered for its best moments, not its worst.

Even though Monday Night Football still exists, the move to ESPN cheapens it. Even though most Americans have hundreds of channels to choose from, the Big Three still matter, which made ABC's sponsorship of Monday Night Football so important. By relegated the broadcast to basic cable Disney effectively destroyed an institution. Now NBC and CBS are happy to attack Monday night with their best shows. That means fewer people are watching Monday Night Football. NBC bought back part of its share of the NFL pie by snapping up a Monday Night game but it's not the same. Monday Night Football was special. It was an event. Now, it's just a game.

ESPN used to be special, but they've over saturated the market with themselves. There are too many channels and there's too much coverage. I enjoyed football more when there was some mystery to it, now there are mobs of former players going to great lengths to demystify the game. As somebody who considers himself a student of the game, I find the endless lectures to be boring and often erroneous. Former coaches are such for a reason and ex-jocks are generally hired for name recognition. They aren't any more credible than any of the millions of fans who have studied the game since they were kids. It's actually a little insulting to have a clown like Howie Long preaching football from on high. So I try not to watch.

Even though my interest in the Sunday games had waned long ago, I still found myself tuning in to MNF. I enjoyed the game. It was Monday, after all...there wasn't much else to do and, until John Madden came along I enjoyed the broadcast team. Dennis Miller was terrible but I loved watching him humiliate himself every week. I loved watching Al Michaels hold back the urge to punch him in the face. Veins bulging on the side of his head, jaw clenched, the uneasy laugh when miller tried to blend an obscure pop culture reference with football. It was gold. Now Dennis Miller's a conservative pundit with a dwindling audience. Who'd have thought Rob Schneider would be the bigger star?

I don't think I've watched a Monday Night game since the move to ESPN. At least not in its entirety. I've seen enough to know that Tony Kornheiser makes Dennis Miller look like Dan Dierdorf which doesn't bode well. I used to like Mike Tirico but he's one of the shills who is always trying to find something meaningful in sports when it's just a bunch of overpaid jocks beating each other senseless. I haven't seen Ron Jaworski's performance on MNF but I'm sure he doesn't stop talking. Which is good because that means less Tony, but it's not like it used to be. And that's too bad.

The NFL is popular enough that it is going to survive this debacle but I don't think I'm alone when I skip Monday Night Football and find something else to watch. Like reruns of House.