Tag Archives: 2014

Cleveland Browns Ten Best of 2014

Well, here we are again. The door has finally closed on the most recent Browns season. It may actually be more appropriate to say that the lid has finally been closed on the casket, but hey, semantics. 2014 ended much the same way that every season seemingly ends. The Browns strolled into one of their rival’s stadiums with their third string quarterback while nursing a massive losing streak, and proceeded to put up a valiant (pathetic) performance that came up short.

In what has become the saddest, most infuriating and depressing holiday tradition around these parts, the Browns train flew off the tracks halfway through the season and careened down the hillside in flames. The details of this particular fiery wreck were a little different than seasons past, as is normally the case, but the end result was eerily familiar. The only thing that is slightly unfamiliar to me is that I have to write about it this year for an adoring public clamoring for my thoughts on the year that was.

(Deliberate pause for everyone to get in their prolonged eye rolls)

As is the case with an NFL season, especially one involving the team that plays on the Northern edge of downtown Cleveland, there is so much that happens that trying to pack it all into one article would be borderline irresponsible. It would also eat up content that could be stretched out for a few weeks, but let’s go with the previous sentence. It sounds much better. That being said, over the next month or so I’ll be taking a look back at all things 2014 Cleveland Browns before we get to start talking about the offseason and our favorite civic past time which is, of course, the NFL Draft. Today I’ll be starting off with the positive and counting down the Cleveland Browns ten best of 2014.

10. Kyle Shanahan

We’ll start things off with the Browns young offensive coordinator. Granted, there were some issues with his offense that showed after starting center Alex Mack went down, but I have to say that I really do like his offense overall and saw a lot of positives that give me hope for the future. He’ll be getting interviews for Head Coaching jobs elsewhere, and I wouldn’t be all that surprised if he actually landed on of them, but if he comes back the Browns will have a year under their belt with him and I would be willing to bet the Browns offense improves come next season. If you look at what he did, especially early on, with some limitations at certain positions and his ability to adjust, I have to give a very positive review of Kyle Shanahan’s job in his first season with the team.

9. “Scrap Heap” Wide Receiver Acquisitions

I wasn’t exactly sure how to title this one. When I made my list for this I ended up with fourteen players and coaches that I wanted to mention. Unfortunately, a top fourteen list doesn’t quite have the ring to it that a top ten list does, so I had to make some edits. The first of those was combining three guys that I thought clearly needed to be mentioned into one item. Those guys, in no particular order, are Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, and Miles Austin. These three were each acquired through different ways and all made their mark at a position that was thought to be among the worst on the team.

To be clear, none of these receivers will be mistaken for an elite player. But each of them were extremely pleasant surprises that had very good first seasons with the Browns. There were big plays made by all of them, they brought a sure handedness that we had been sorely lacking, and I would wholeheartedly support all three of them being back next season. As sad as it is, there aren’t many receivers that have played for the Browns the past decade or so that I could say any of those things about, let alone all three.

8. Karlos Dansby

One of the big offseason acquisitions for the Browns, Dansby was brought in for both his on field performance and his veteran presence in the locker room. And he exceeded all expectations that I had for both of those things. He may have been higher on this list had his season not been cut short by injury, but there is no doubt that the signing of Karlos Dansby was an incredibly important one for the development of a winning culture, and there is also no doubt that he still has something left in the tank.

7. Paul Kruger

After signing a huge free agent deal and having a disappointing first season, Kruger came back in a big way this year. He was a guy that I thought could be gone if his second season went the same way as his first, but he turned things around and was one of the better players on the defensive side of the ball throughout 2014. Kruger ended up with 11.5 sacks and he was one of the only players, if not the only, who applied consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

6. The Baby Backs

You may know them by their given names Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell, but together they were known throughout the season as the Baby Backs. And while each of them had some issues during their rookie year, they both showed enough flashes that I think we can all be satisfied with the running back position going into next season. The talent is obvious and as long they can clean up their respective problems the Browns will have a great 1-2 punch for the foreseeable future.

5. Mike Pettine

There were definitely mistakes made by the Browns rookie Head Coach, but he is someone that I have to put in this top ten. I’m positive that I will have much more on Pettine in the very near future, but for now I’ll slot him right smack in the middle of this list. There are almost certainly other coaches that we all would have liked the Browns to have hired the past few years using hindsight, but we ended up with Mike Pettine. And I have to say that I have a much better feeling in my gut regarding him than I had for all of his predecessors dating back to Butch Davis. I love his honesty, I love his relatability, and I love the type of program that he’s trying to build here. I’m only hoping that he gets the time needed to build that program.

4. Joe Thomas

Joe Thomas, Pro Bowl, All Pro. Rinse, wash, repeat. The Browns veteran left tackle caught a lot of flack for having a down season and nearing the end of his career as an elite lineman. This Browns columnist would like to tell you that that is all a steaming pile of crap. Sure, he may not have had his best season, but let’s remember that his best season ranks among the elite for the entire history of the NFL. Rumors of his demise are far, far exaggerated and we should all continue to count our lucky stars that we have him on our team. Here’s hoping that he actually gets to play in the postseason before his Hall of Fame career ends.

3. Joel Bitonio

It would make sense that the high second round draft pick that practically no one in Cleveland had ever heard of would be higher on this list than the future Hall of Famer that he played next to, right? In Browns world, of course it would. The pick of Bitonio either enraged fans because he wasn’t a wide receiver or befuddled fans because they had no clue who he was. There really wasn’t much in between, me included. I fell into the second category, but instantly fell in love with the guy after listening to his conference call after the second day of the Draft and reading up on him. And then he went out and had himself a fantastic rookie season at left guard. He’s the kind of person you want in the locker room, and judging by his first year with the Browns he’s also the kind of player you want on the field. Barring injury, you can set it in stone that he’ll be playing in some Pro Bowls and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he’s the guy who ends up taking over at left tackle when Joe Thomas calls it quits.

2. The Secondary

Again, this is kind of cheating. I had three players that definitely needed to be mentioned, and a couple others who were close to making the list. But, for the sake of not leaving out some of the others, I have combined them all and will talk about them as a unit. The Browns secondary in 2014 contained two players who made the Pro Bowl in Joe Haden and Tashaun Gipson, two steadfast veterans who played well in Buster Skrine and Donte Whitner, and a surprising undrafted rookie who was fantastic before getting hurt in K’Waun Williams.

I mainly wanted to make sure that Haden, Gipson, and Williams were mentioned, but it seems fitting for me to include the unit as a whole. Gipson had his coming out party this year, leading the league in interceptions before suffering a season ending injury, and K’Waun Williams was an incredibly pleasant surprise, vastly outplaying first round pick Justin Gilbert.

But mostly, I have to talk about Joe Haden. After a slow start that could probably be attributed to being banged up out of the gate and adjusting to the new restrictive rules for defenders, Haden played at as high a level as anyone could given the restrictions on defensive backs in today’s NFL. To put it much more simply, Joe Haden was out of this world fantastic and showed why he continues to be among the best at his position in all of the NFL. He came up with a couple of the more ridiculous pass break ups and interceptions that you’ll ever see and, as far as I can tell, continues to be a great presence in the locker room. I should probably qualify everything I write about him with the fact that he will probably go down as one of my favorite Cleveland athletes of all time, but I won’t right now because his play on the field doesn’t need any qualifiers.

1. Alex Mack

I stewed over whether the secondary or Mack should earn the number one spot on this list. After all, the secondary encompassed a half dozen players who ranged from fantastic to good, had two Pro Bowl nominations, and a myriad of other points for other players going for it. As much of a cop out as it may have been, part of me couldn’t see how anything from the 2014 Browns could top the resume of that unit.

But then there was that other part of me. The part that saw the offense in the first five games before Alex Mack went down with a season ending injury. The part that saw an offensive line, a unit, and an entire team that could impose their will on any team and dictate the tempo. The same part of me that saw a team with a new identity that could play with any team in the league, and was winning more than they were losing.

Sadly, that part of me, and all parts of me really, were slowly devastated in the weeks and months following Mack’s injury. Sure, there were some wins against bad teams and a few good performances against playoff bound squads, but for all intents and purposes the season ended when Alex Mack was carted off the field in October during the bludgeoning of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I would never have believed that a center could have such a monumental impact on a team. Hell, I think I even wrote as much last offseason when talking about whether the Browns should keep T.J. Ward or Mack. But I have never seen an injury, aside from a quarterback, affect a team as much as Mack’s injury did to the Browns. I honestly still can’t believe how staggering the difference was. I’ll have more on this in the next few weeks, but there is not a shred of doubt in my mind that Alex Mack was the most valuable player on the Browns in 2014. There’s no way we would have ever known it had he not gotten hurt and had he stayed healthy it would have certainly been someone else.

But, unfortunately for all of us, he did get hurt. His season was ended prematurely. And the team went into a tailspin that was impressive even for the Browns. And a center who didn’t even play five games ends up atop my list of the best of the 2014 Cleveland Browns. It’s almost unbelievable.

Almost.

Leadership at the Top Gives Browns Future Hope

Another Cleveland Browns season has come and gone without a playoff appearance. Despite an AFC North leading 6-3 start, the home team finished with a 7-9 record—good enough for last in the division while losing their final five games. Many fans are angry, myself included. However, I am choosing to focus on some positives rather than tearing down every position, as easy as that would be. I feel we have great leadership in place at the top that allows me to feel hope for the future of the Browns.

Mike PettineWe were once again dealing with a rookie Head Coach and rookie GM this year. However, Mike Pettine took this team to a 7-9 record when many national pundits predicted the Browns would with four or less games again this season. Before the season began, I know many Browns fans would have called me crazy if I said this team would win seven games.

Pettine is also establishing a no-nonsense culture in the locker room. While it is tremendously beneficial to have veteran voices like Donte Whitner and Joe Thomas in the locker room, the leadership and discipline needs to come from the Head Coach. Mike Pettine decided to sit Justin Gilbert and Josh Gordon for violating team rules. Regardless of it being a meaningless game for the Browns, the message was sent that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you were drafted, get it together or you won’t be playing for this team.

FarmerIt was also the first year for Ray Farmer to hold a General Manager position. I believe he did very well and look for him to improve in the years to come—especially in the first round of the draft. While I’m not quite ready to give up on Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel, there definitely needs to be significant improvement from these two to salvage the TWO first round picks we had in 2014. Johnny is a knucklehead that needs to grow up, but I both of these players have the talent needed to succeed in the NFL. The question is, will they apply themselves to realize their potential, or will they be names in the long list of poor Browns draft choices?

While the first round is still undetermined, the rest of the draft as well as the undrafted players that Ray Farmer brought in have already made significant contributions. Joel Bitonio (2nd round), Christian Kirksey (3rd), Terrance West (4th) and Pierre Desir (4th) all had pretty decent rookie years—especially Bitonio.

Let’s also look at the notable undrafted players that Farmer and his scout team deemed worthy to bring in this year. Isaiah Crowell, Taylor Gabriel, Connor Shaw and K’Waun Williams. That is pretty impressive, considering a few of these players arguably performed well above veterans or those that were actually drafted this year.

Add these rookies along with free agent signings Andrew Hawkins, Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby, I believe Ray Farmer gets an A for this rookie year. This, as well as adding an additional first round pick in the 2015 draft, which we now know the Browns will be picking 12 and 19.

I believe a bit more praise is in order for Ray Farmer. This time, for realizing just how valuable Alex Mack was for this offense. I remember many fans and media members bemoaning the Browns matching Jacksonville’s 5-year, $42 million offer to resign the center. After Mack went down for the season, you would have to be blind to deny the impact he makes on the offensive line. It was a brilliant move to use the transition tag and allow another team do the negotiating for them.

Looking forward, while there are a few holes that need to be addressed (unfortunately we still don’t know who will be our starting QB), I see the Cleveland Browns future is bright. You can call me a blind, hopeless optimist. You can say I’m suffering from some morbid sports Stockholm syndrome. Call it whatever you’d like, I enjoyed watching the Browns this season and I’m positive to see how this team grows under the current leadership.

Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine are exactly what we needed in this organization. Also, the very last thing that should happen is to get rid of them, so any talk of firing either of them needs to stop. You get rid of them, who would want to come to Cleveland in a situation like that?

What Cleveland needs is continuity for multiple years. No knee-jerk reactions. Stay the course.

Go Browns.

Ryan's Best Of NASCAR 2014 Columns

by Ryan Isley

Each year since I have been writing for More Than A Fan, I have done a year-end piece with links to my personal favorite pieces I have written that year. In those first couple of years, the final piece of the year was always a mixture of regular site and the More Than A Fan Wheels site.

For the first couple of months this year, I was sporadic in writing for either site. Then in March, Shay Hazen came to me and asked if I could begin writing a weekly column again for the MTAF Wheels site, I was excited to get back to a regular posting. Starting right then, I began posting a NASCAR piece every Friday with a few others sprinkled in throughout the week when needed.

So the following are my five favorite pieces that I wrote for the MTAF Wheels site in 2014, complete with a link and a snippet from each one. Thanks as always for the readership – see you again in 2015.

Danica Patrick Still Failing to Live Up To The Hype (June 27):

As always, the hype surrounding Danica Patrick was larger than the actual production produced by NASCAR’s little spitfire. However, sometimes – ok, always  – her fans ignore the facts and take offense anyone says anything negative about their favorite driver.

“The five-foot-two ball of fire could best be described as having the looks of a model, the temper of a redheaded Irishman and the mouth of a sailor. If there was ever a case of Napoleon complex in women, you could look no further than the driver of the No.10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing.

The thing with Patrick is that no matter her success, or lack thereof, on the track, she is a hit among advertisers. Having the distinction of being the first female to lead the Indianapolis 500 and also the first female to lead a green-flag lap in the Daytona 500, coupled with her unquestionably good looks, she is a marketing dream. While there are other attractive female athletes out there, compared to most of them, Danica Patrick might as well be one of the Angels from Victoria’s Secret.”

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Drivers Hurting NASCAR Nationwide Series (July 11):

For the second straight season, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers dominated the Nationwide circuit. While NASCAR sees it as drawing fans to see the bigger names, it actually makes the series less exciting and no longer feels like a place where young drivers can cut their teeth.

“This is insanity. Seeing as how the Nationwide Series is supposed to be a sort of a minor league for drivers trying to make their way to the big league (the Sprint Cup Series), there is no way NASCAR can continue to allow the drivers from their premier series to drop down and race in the lower-tier series on a regular basis. This would be like the Pittsburgh Penguins sending Sidney Crosby to Wilkes Barre/Scranton to help win the AHL championship. It would be like the Los Angeles Dodgers sending Clayton Kershaw to the Albuquerque Isotopes to try to deliver a PCL title. It would be like the Oklahoma City Thunder sending Kevin Durant to the Sioux City 66ers to bring home a NDBL championship.”

There is Nothing Easy With The Tony Stewart Saga (August 15):

When the sprint car of Tony Stewart struck Kevin Ward Jr. leading to the death of the younger driver, those in the national media who are clueless about NASCAR and racing in general took to the airwaves and to their computers to spew their ignorance.  What they didn’t understand is that this case was not just cut and dry like they wanted it to be.

“Speaking of those people, one thing I have seen is that people are saying they believe Stewart did this intentionally because he has had a temper in the past and is thought of by many as one of the badasses of NASCAR. So because of Stewart’s reputation as somewhat of a badass, he is capable of a cold-blooded murder on the track? These are the kind of statements and inferences that have become extremely dangerous since last Saturday night.

Just because Stewart has had a temper at times does not make him a cold-blooded murderer. By making him out to be one based on a few outbursts, it would be reasonable that Kyle Busch or Danica Patrick could possibly kill someone on the track as well. That’s a slippery slope to go down – one that won’t end well for those who venture down it.”

No Chase Needed – Sherry Pollex Is The True NASCAR Champion In 2014 (September 19):

When Sherry Pollex announced in August that she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and had undergone surgery, the way she continued to approach things was extraordinary. Her positive outlook and attitude made her ongoing battle not seem like a negative thing. The support she received then and continues to receive shows just how special she really is.

“What this has shown to many is that while she is battling the disease, the disease is not beating her. She is still doing what she wants to do and is not changing just because she is now in a fight for her health. By doing this, she is becoming – and should continue to become – an inspiration to women who might be battling the same disease. But it is more than that – she is an inspiration to anyone, even those who aren’t fighting cancer, just by showing the strength and fight she has already shown.”

Media Focus On Tony Stewart Once Again Misguided (October 17):

When all hell broke loose at Charlotte, the least significant of the incidents involved Tony Stewart. However, people made it seem like Stewart was the largest offender based on his past and the incident just two months prior.

“In light of the incident that occurred August 9th at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in a sprint car race on a dirt track that resulted in the death of Kevin Ward Jr., the national media has decided that Stewart is a villain. Pay no attention to the fact that there were no charges brought against Stewart following the incident, even as the district attorney sent the case to the grand jury to see if an indictment would be handed down. In fact, Stewart not being charged in the incident has probably turned some even more against Stewart, as they let their personal opinions – no matter how off base and uneducated they may be – play into how they handle every story involving the 3-time NASCAR champion.”

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.

 

 

 

2014 Terps: End of Year Superlatives

With the Terps’ inaugural Big Ten season in the books, I decided to take a glance back at some of the more memorable plays, players and moments from the 2014 season. At times we laughed, we cried, we jumped for joy; so what better way to relive some of the Maryland football season than with high-school-yearbook-style superlatives?

 

Offensive Player of the Year: C.J. Brown

Don’t laugh. The sixth-year senior undoubtedly had the most up-and-down season of any Terrapin, and this came as no real surprise to those who have watched the Maryland offense over the last several seasons. Controversy arose by mid-season as Brown continued to struggle with both accuracy in throwing the football and decision-making. Any questions about who should be starting under center faded with the season-ending injury to backup quarterback Caleb Rowe, and Brown finished out the season as the Terps’ starter. Unfortunately for Brown, he will probably be remembered more for his interceptions thrown directly to defenders with no Terrapin wide receiver in sight, being pulled at halftime of the loss to Ohio State and missing wide open receivers on… well… more than one occasion.

Despite consistently being inconsistent, Brown led the Terrapins to a 7-5 record in their first season as members of the Big Ten. The dual-threat quarterback finished 2014 with a respectable 20 total touchdowns (13 passing, seven rushing) and accounted for over 2,500 yards of total offense (2,083 passing, 569 rushing).

Honorable Mention: Stefon Diggs

Had Diggs not missed the final three games of the regular season (and performed well in those games) I probably would have chosen the junior wideout over C.J. Brown. Before his suspension/injury, Diggs recorded 52 receptions for 654 yards and five scores. He had a good chance of reaching the 1000-yard receiving mark, which would have been a monumental accomplishment especially in light of the Terrapins’ typically anemic offense. His role as a kickoff returner should also not be overlooked, as his speed and elusiveness gave the Terps’ offense decent starting field position more often than not.

 

Defensive Player of the Year: Will Likely

Cornerback Will Likely had a breakout year in 2014 and gained national attention for his play. Likely finished the season with six interceptions, the most by any player in the Big Ten. The sophomore corner was one of two players in the conference to score two defensive touchdowns, and he was awarded Big Ten Player of the Week honors twice this season. Likely appears to be a star in the making. With a couple more productive years as a Terrapin, Likely could potentially have a similar career path as his recent predecessor, Dexter McDougle, en route to a mid-round draft pick in the NFL.

Honorable Mention: Cole Farrand

Inside linebacker Cole Farrand had an impressive year for the Terps, finishing the 2014 season with 111 total tackles (64 solo, 47 assisted). He was an integral piece to the Terrapins’ first conference win, as he helped contain one of the nation’s leading running backs in Tevin Coleman to well below his season rushing average. Farrand recorded a season-high 19 tackles in that contest and was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. He followed up his standout performance at Indiana by notching 17 tackles the following week in a home loss to Ohio State.

Honorable Mention: Andre Monroe

Monroe, although slightly undersized for his position, anchored the Terrapin defensive line in 2014. After missing all of the 2013 season with a knee injury, Monroe returned in a big way. The senior finished the year with 56 total tackles, nine sacks, and 12 tackles for loss.

 

Best Catch: Marcus Leak

In 2013 the Maryland Terrapins suffered an embarrassing 20-3 loss to the Syracuse Orange in College Park. This season, Maryland traveled to upstate New York and returned the favor, as the Terps impressively defeated a solid Syracuse team by two touchdowns. C.J. Brown looked sharp early throwing the football, and he connected with wide receiver Marcus Leak for a 25-yard touchdown in the first quarter. The TD grab was not Leak’s most impressive catch of the game though. With Maryland leading 14-13 early in the second quarter, Brown let one fly down the sideline towards a streaking Leak in single coverage. Both Leak and the Syracuse defender jumped for the ball, and both got their hands on it almost simultaneously. The defender seemed to have a secure grasp on an interception, but Leak wrestled the ball away as both fell to the artificial turf of the Carrier Dome. It was such a great catch the game announcer initially didn’t realize Leak came away with the 46-yard reception.

 

Unsung Hero: Jacquille Veii

Injuries and suspensions depleted the Maryland wide receiver corps in 2014, and by season’s end previously unknown players like Daniel Adams and Juwann Winfree were catching passes for the Terps. Question marks also surrounded the backfield all season long, as no Terrapin running back finished with more than 100 yards rushing in a game until the final game of the season. Sophomore Jacquille Veii stepped up and filled some of the void for Maryland as both a wide receiver and running back in 2014. Veii’s role as a receiver was more prominent, as he finished the season with a total of just 19 carries for 105 yards and two rushing touchdowns. While that’s an average of under two carries a game, it must be noted that only five times all season did a Terrapin running back get more than 10 carries in a game; two of the five instances occurred in the Terps’ first game of the season, a blowout win over James Madison. Veii struggled occasionally with dropped passes at times, but still provided a veteran presence to a depleted receiving corps. Veii finished the year with 16 receptions for 230 yards and a touchdown.

 

Worst Play Call: Randy Edsall

While Maryland undoubtedly had an overall successful season, it just as undoubtedly ended in heartbreak with the monumental collapse to Rutgers at home. Maryland blew a 25-point lead and the Scarlet Knights offense, under new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen, scored touchdowns on four straight possessions to defeat Maryland. The embarrassing loss was sealed when Maryland head coach Randy Edsall inexplicably decided to keep the offense on the field on 4th and 1 with just over a minute left to play, passing on a very makeable 46-yard field goal attempt. Maryland was stuffed and the game was over. After the game, Edsall effectively placed the blame on his players for not getting the first down instead of taking blame for a horrible coaching decision. Edsall said, “You can always look back and say you could have called this or could have called that. They are always good calls if the plays are executed.”

By the way, last week kicker Brad Craddock received the Lou Groza award, honoring him as the best kicker in the country.

Honorable Mention:

Edsall’s decision to go for it on 4th and 12 from the Wisconsin 35 yard line on Maryland’s first drive of the game. The Terps unsurprisingly turned the ball over on downs, and the Badgers proceeded to hand Maryland one of their most lopsided losses in school history.

 

Most Likely to Succeed: Stefon Diggs

This one is a no-brainer. Junior wide receiver Stefon Diggs has been the Terps’ best player for nearly three years. He is dynamic, elusive, and is uncatchable in the open field. Diggs has produced at his position despite injuries and inconsistent quarterback play. Over three seasons, Diggs averaged more than five receptions and 77 receiving yards per game, as well as recording a touchdown every two games. In nine games in 2014, Diggs notched 52 catches for 654 yards with five touchdowns. If not for his one game suspension and injury, Diggs had a fair chance at having a 1000-yard receiving season.

 

Biggest Disappointment: Wes Brown

Wes Brown returned to the Terps’ backfield after serving a season-long suspension in 2013. Many thought he would automatically assume the starting role over fellow tailbacks Brandon Ross and Albert Reid. Instead, the Maryland coaching staff employed an absurd running back by committee approach that gave headaches not to opposing defenses but to Maryland fans instead. Only once did a Terrapin running back have 100 yards rushing in a game (Brandon Ross on 10 carries against Rutgers), but Brown’s lack of production, when afforded his limited opportunities, was notable. Brown finished the season with 341 yards on 97 carries (3.5 rush yds/att) and five touchdowns. The touchdown total appears respectable, but many of these were goal-line carries when the coaching staff arbitrarily chose Brown over other backs to carry the football. So I suppose this is a slight knock on Brown, but a bigger knock on Edsall.

Honorable Mention: Any other Maryland running back

 

Mr. Reliable: Brad Craddock

Aussie kicker Brad Craddock had an incredible 2014 season for Maryland. The junior did not miss a field goal until the final game of the regular season (a miss from 54 yards that sailed just outside the left upright) earning him the nickname “Automatic” Craddock. He finished the year having made 18 of 19 field goal attempts, and converted all 41 of his PAT attempts. His heroics included a school-record 57-yard field goal against Indiana and the winning 43-yard field goal against Penn State in Happy Valley. Craddock received the Lou Groza Award, honoring him as the nation’s best place kicker.

Terps Receivers Didn’t Drop the Ball in 2014

Before the first snap of the 2014 season, the Maryland Terrapins boasted one of the most talented receiving corps in the nation. Led by NFL prospect Stefon Diggs, the Terps were nationally ranked in the top fifteen at the position by various entities that create such rankings, including a sixth place preseason ranking by Athlon Sports. Despite question marks at the quarterback position, the Terrapin receivers were primed for nationally-recognized success entering Maryland’s inaugural Big Ten season.

Unfortunately for the Terps, what was once a position overflowing with talent was almost entirely depleted over the last four months. Some receivers fell to season-ending injuries. Others were suspended by either the university or the NCAA. One player transferred before the season began. Despite significant changes in the depth chart, the receiving corps maintained enough reliability and productiveness to help the team to their 2014 seven game win total. Yes, dropped passes became an extreme cause for concern at times this season, especially over the final several weeks. But players like Jacquille Veii, Daniel Adams and Amba Etta-Tawo stepped up to provide some sense of stability to the position. Here is a player-by-player breakdown of what became a surprisingly thin skill position for the Terps in 2014:

Nigel King (transferred): After being designated as the Terps’ No. 3 receiver after the 2013 season, King felt his talents would be more appreciated elsewhere and transferred to Kansas. After injuries ended the seasons of Stefon Diggs and Deon Long in 2013, King became a more integral part of the Terrapins’ offense last season. He finished the year with 33 receptions for 450 yards and four touchdowns. Not awe-inducing statistics by any means, but King’s talent was certainly useful in an overall average offense. This season King finished with 30 receptions for 537 yards and just one touchdown for the Jayhawks. Had he remained with Maryland, he likely would have had a more productive year statistically, not to mention the fact he’d be heading to a bowl with his fellow Terrapins. But hey, hindsight is 20/20, right Nigel?

Levern Jacobs (suspended): The injuries to Diggs and Long in the seventh game of the 2013 season provided opportunities for several players, and Jacobs arguably stepped up the most. Jacobs snagged 47 passes on the season for 640 yards and three touchdowns. Again, not necessarily overwhelming statistics, but his production over the second half of the 2013 season seemed to reserve a more prominent role for him in the Terps’ offense in 2014 even after the return of Diggs and Long. In his final six games of 2013, Jacobs caught 37 passes for 473 yards (79 yards/game) and three touchdowns. Jacobs was listed as a starter on the team’s final depth chart heading into this season.

Jacobs, along with backup safety A.J. Hendy, was suspended by the university just before the start of the season for violating the university’s code of student conduct. The violation stemmed from an incident that occurred in July 2014 for which Jacobs was charged with second degree assault. He has since been found not guilty.

Taivon Jacobs (injury): After the transfer of Nigel King and the suspension of his older brother, Taivon Jacobs figured to see more playing time in the Terps’ offense this season. The three star speedster and Ohio State transfer was slated to take over a starter’s role as Maryland’s third wide receiver. However, on just the second drive of Maryland’s first game this year, Jacobs suffered a torn meniscus running a deep route and was lost for the season.

Stefon Diggs (suspension/injury): The biggest blow to the receiving corps came after the Terps defeated Penn State in Happy Valley on November 1. The team’s best player at any position, Diggs was suspended for one game by the NCAA for his pregame antics. The events leading to the suspension included his involvement in a brief scuffle with a few Nittany Lions, during which Diggs (inadvertently?) made contact with a referee. This, in addition to the now infamous handshake snub, led the NCAA to take action.

While most Maryland fans thought the team would be without its star for just one game, news soon followed that Diggs could potentially miss the rest of the 2014 season. Diggs suffered a lacerated kidney on a play against Penn State when the receiver tried to stretch for the goal line for a touchdown. Diggs missed Maryland’s final three regular season games, and the team went 1-2 without him. He reportedly will likely be able to return for Maryland’s bowl game against Stanford on December 30.

It goes without saying that Diggs’ impact in the Maryland offense has been felt since 2012. Over the past three seasons, he is averaging over five receptions and 77 receiving yards per game, as well as averaging a touchdown every other game. All of his production has come despite average to below average quarterback play, including having a freshman linebacker under center for much of one season (2012).

Juwann Winfree (suspension): The true freshman saw increased playing time throughout this season as the receiver position continued to thin. He caught his first pass as a Terrapin for a 30-yard touchdown against Indiana, and in the seven games he appeared in he recorded a total of 10 receptions for 144 yards and two touchdowns. Winfree was coming off his best game (four catches, 80 yards, 1 TD in the loss to Michigan State) when the university announced he would be suspended for the remaining two regular season games for violating the student athlete code of conduct. Winfree should be available for Maryland’s bowl game.

By the Terps’ final regular season contest, an embarrassing home loss to Rutgers and their offensive coordinator/former Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen, the Maryland receiving corps looked much different than it did to start the season. With Stefon Diggs returning for Maryland’s matchup with Stanford in the Foster Farms Bowl on December 30, he and senior Deon Long remain among the most talented starting wide receiver duos in the country. However, receivers like Amba Etta-Tawo, Jacquille Veii, Daniel Adams and Juwann Winfree (before his suspension) should be applauded for maintaining consistency in the Maryland offense and helping the team to an overall successful 2014 campaign.

Why the Browns Have Me Waiting For Next Year

I’m afraid to admit this, but the ship has sailed on anything good this season. It’s the same old Browns in a slightly different skin. They might be a few wins better than normal, but at the end of Week 17, there are tee times to be set and a May draft to think about, but no games until August. Fortunately, we’re so familiar with the routine that it should depress us no longer.

There are excuses more legitimate than we’ve seen in years past, and we have no problem with anyone upgrading this bunch from the standard F or D- to a more motivating C+, but they’ve once again failed this pass/fail course we call an NFL regular season. Sure, it’s one of their more successful fails, compared to what we’ve become accustomed to, but we’ve waited two decades for a post-season victory in Cleveland. We can wait another 365 days.

Mike Pettine hasn’t had all of the answers this season, but DAMNIT JIM, he’s a football coach, not a doctor.

The simple answer is the same as always. The reason why the Browns aren’t going to entertain us with January football is that they’ll fail to win the amount of games required for entry into the tournament. The complicated answer is also the same, though to a lesser degree than we’ve come to know and love. They lack the talent to do so.

In the past, we’ve denied lack of talent because it was tough to slice through all of the dreadful coaching to learn the truth. When Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn co-existed in Berea, some were excited at the idea of two real NFL-caliber quarterbacks being on the roster, but the reality is that there were none. Then, there was the time Joshua Cribbs was easily the best player on the roster. Needless to say, that wasn’t a roster worth celebrating, which is the same sentiment many have for the long list of coaches and executives that have taken money from the fans, but offered little in return.

If you think things are terrible at quarterback with Hoyer on the field and Manziel waiting in the wings, I present defense exhibits A & B.

Before you go measuring the emptiness of the current glass, let me assure you that it is most certainly half-full, but it’s going to be capped with an air-tight lid until 2015. First, applause is due for an outstanding first season from Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine, the loudest voices in the board room and on the field, respectively. You can nit-pick the little things all day long, but at the end of the day, it’s hard to deny these guys have done their job, perhaps better than any of their counterparts before them, going back to 1999.

I suppose a full 180 degree turn from the 4-12 team that left Pittsburgh with their lame duck head coach would mean finishing in the Final Four instead of the bottom 4 in the NFL, and that’s not going to happen, but they’ve righted the ship. Mathematically, they can flip their win-loss record from a year ago, but an honest look at the state of this football team doesn’t suggest that being they way things will play out.

Look at the way the way were built. You play to your strengths, and the make-up of this roster said they would be strong running the ball and letting their defense win games. Depending on how you looked at it, you could come to the conclusion that no one making decisions took the idea of throwing the football too seriously. That isn’t a slight on Brian Hoyer, but it’s clear they were willing to settle for the hometown kid as a place-holder while other needs were met.

They had the best receiver in the game with Brandon Weeden throwing the football and no one better than Greg Little opposite Josh Gordon, so they prioritized other deficient areas. Ben Tate was an obvious target before we even knew Kyle Shannahan would be in the fold, which only made the former-Texans back a better fit. If you paid attention to the draft experts, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell were home run picks on paper, and the Browns brass was rounding the bases on Draft Day.

With a couple of youngsters from schools you’ve never heard of running the football, Kyle Shanahan has put himself in a good position to interview for some head coaching jobs.

Some were curious about the selection of Joel Bitonio over any highly rated pass-catcher in the second round of the draft, given that word of Gordon’s potential absence from the 2014 roster had come down between Rounds 1 and 2, but they stayed the course and found a monster of a man to play guard between Joe Thomas and Alex Mack. If everything played out the way was it planned, it promised not to be an awful plan. They weren’t going to half-ass themselves into a passing team. It wouldn’t have made any sense.

If this were a video game, you would have taken one look at the Browns depth and turned injuries off. Missing time was just not an option. If you had to make a list of offensive players they could least afford to take the field without, it would go something like this:

1. Joe Thomas
2. Josh Gordon
3. Alex Mack
4. Brian Hoyer
5. Jordan Cameron

Thomas, their first-round pick in 2007, has never missed a snap, in this season or any other. Mack, taken in Round 1 two years later, shared that distinction until a broken leg took him out for the year in early October. We know Gordon was handed a ten game suspension by the league, but it’s six fewer games than we initially feared. Cameron has missed time with brain injuries and Hoyer has taken every snap, save three plays designed for their popular rookie back-up. Add in time missed by Ben Tate and Andrew Hawkins, and then wonder how this team has won 60% of their games.

mackinjured
There goes the season

The team released the highly-touted Tate on Tuesday, after ten games of sub-par production. It was a pretty ballsy move, but many would approve of them making good football decisions that aren’t the best PR moves. It goes to show where their priorities are. They like what they see from their tandem of rookies from small schools. We all know the results would be better if the offensive line was at full-strength.

On the defensive side of the ball, I think it’s fair to say we expected better, back when this was a team playing at full strength. We wondered why Joe Haden was getting $60 million contracts when he struggled to cover the aging Steve Smith. We wondered what this team saw in Justin Gilbert, given his lack of production, and if the Buffalo defensive coaching staff of 2013 could graduate Barkevious Mingo from project to football player.

Steve Smith, Joe Haden
This picture doesn’t tell you whose star is fading and whose is allegedly rising.

Players were thought to be busts from the free agent market, like Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant, started earning their paychecks. Tashaun Gipson and Buster Skrine have looked a lot more competent in the secondary, and having Karlos Dansby, Phil Taylor, and Armonty Bryant up front made the entire unit better. Unfortunately, we won’t have the services of the latter three available for the better part of what remains this season.

In the end, it adds up to a very talented list of football players on the Injured Reserve and not enough talent on the active roster to compensate for those losses. And while their presence arguably made their teammates better, their absence does contribute to a significant decline. We’re not looking at a lost cause, but definitely a lost season.

You might call me a wet blanket for observing this thing with my eyes open, but I’m simply not going to set myself up for the inevitable disappointment that will dawn on the eternal optimists out there. There’s no waiting for the bottom to fall out here; that happened when Mack went down, rendering the strength of this running game to a fraction of what it’s supposed to be. Granted, it’s forced the defense into a previously undiscovered gear, but now they’ve set the bar high for themselves and they can’t possibly sustain it with the personnel they’ve been left with.

The silver lining resides in the fact that in writing off this wildly successful season of growth and development, we’re not watching the window of opportunity slam shut. Our optimism isn’t rooted in the unknown of what could be added to the roster, but in the utilization of known commodities, guys that just happen to be banged up right now. For the first time in a long time, the present is very nice and the future is actually much brighter.

After 16 years, we’re all tired of that Bad News Bears mantra, “wait ’til next year”, but we’ll all be ready for something very special in 2015. I’ll be there with bells on.

The Latest Version of The "Un-Rivalry'. The Win M Fans Didn't Want.

It is already the 21st season of play for Penn State in the Big Ten Conference. During that time an interesting rivalry has grown between Michigan and Penn State.
I’ll pause so both sides can get in their obligatory, “We’re not rivals!” scream but, like it or not; they are.
I know Michigan and Ohio State hate each other the most and always will. Their feud goes back to the war over what is now Toledo, Ohio and its harbor; and who am I to get between that? Pennsylvania’s Quakers, apparently unaware of the value of war to create rich football history, bought their land off the natives and didn’t declare any wars across borders. There was the nasty incidents of the three Pennamite Wars during the late 1700’s when Connecticut tried to invade Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, not enough Connecticut invaders survived the defense of Pennsylvania to parlay the incidents into a football game.
The Nittany Lions have managed to find a rival to hate but they’re in-state. The University of Pittsburgh. That’s a rivalry that is so intense they don’t even like playing each other and have not since 2000. It is more fun to hate a team you play and for Penn State fans, currently, it is Michigan. Although Michigan fans love to hate OSU, and they do, they also to a lesser degree put a lot of stock in the Penn State game. Besides both school’s sense of enormous pride and value for tradition; many generations of Pennsylvanians have migrated to Michigan over the years and so there is a lot of deep connections between the two states and their teams that create the “underground rivalry” that they are. Enough of history.
Currently, it is October 11th 2014, and I just watched the Penn State vs. Michigan game. In this modern era of college football it is the time of the spread and the height of the passing game, even in the Big Ten, the conference known for a, “three yards and a cloud of dust” style of football. I enjoy watching that kind of football and just got a dose of it tonight.
big-ten-logo-pentagram
The glitch in this modern version was that both teams engaged in a three yards and cloud of dust football but unfortunately, it was while trying to run passing offenses and the three yards too often went backwards not forwards…the preferred direction for modern football. That type of ball is not enjoyable to watch.
At this point, after a loss, the natural inclination is to tear into what Penn State did wrong (and I do have a list). Also, it would be following my emotions to go into the continued troubling appearance of a Michigan fan in a referee uniform getting to watch his team from the field (Dick Witvoet). Mr.Witvoet has a more questionable and controversial reputation in regards to judging games than Jimmy the Greek. Actually, while some may complain about the offsides call against PSU during an onside kick that appeared successful…in truth, Mr. Witvoet seemed to keep his bias leashed tonight. He did not cost PSU the game. I also contend he might have been doing Penn State a favor by keeping their wretched offense and a Christian Hackenberg who appeared to be more of a Hack than a Burg off the field thus sparing us the pleasure of watching more failed opportunities and needless sacks.
michigan-football-coach-brady
The trouble with the emotional approach to discuss this game is that it would be to ignore what Michigan did wrong and that list is just as long as Penn State’s. Penn State did play to win but just not well enough. They even gambled and used speedster freshman corner Grant Haley for a big fake kick that failed. (I wasn’t shocked it failed, in my preseason article I mentioned that running with the ball may not be Grant’s strong suit).
Michigan has a lot of problems and played poorly in the game as well. The bottom line…the most determining factor of who won the this most recent version of the ‘un-rivalry’ that packed the Big House to 113,000 spectators…for their third night game ever…to watch a losing team… was that Michigan needed that win more and wanted it more. It was almost inevitable that they would win, especially when State refused to put them out of it in the first half and left a desperate team with hope and two quarters. It also seemed inevitable that Christian would eventually throw a ball blindly across his body and the field while pinned back deep into his red zone and not protect a three point lead.
Kudos to Michigan for being ready for the quarterback to do such a thing and staying alert on the backside and catching the break when it floated to them. Kudos to them for staying alert and stopping a gutsy fake call. The team that wins is usually the team that takes advantage of opportunities, not who squanders them. Needlessly giving the team the ball with a three point lead is bad, especially when your opponent has it’s third string quarterback in, hasn’t been able to move the ball and the only way they can score is to give them the ball well within field goal range. Simply said, UM took advantage of what was available more than Penn State did tonight.
Penn State is a very young team full of potential with a popular coach who currently has job stability looking to the future. Basically this State team is a division two team if you go by scholarship use and though some may call that a stretch, I counter with the fact that scholarship availability is what separates the divisions… I will concede though that even in D2 or Pop Warner football they can find a punter that can loft the ball more than 29 yards a kick… .
CARR HOKE
Another thought going through my mind was that this Penn State loss and Michigan win was unique. For the first time in a game between these two teams…I really felt the Michigan coach, this time, Brady Hoke, deserved a win and the Michigan fans deserved it, too; for opposite reasons. If I may grossly generalize, Michigan fans are impatient and fickle; wisdom seems to have left the program with Lloyd Carr. In Ann Arbor, they love to count wins perhaps to make up for losing a Toledo they can never have… They have wanted rid of Coach Hoke for a long time and it seems apparent to everyone in the Nation that they are using the latest quarterback controversy over the Shane Morris concussion as an excuse to oust him. That angle comes thoughtlessly at the expense of good men, a good program and football itself. M fans still seem unaware of the national sympathy they have created FOR the Michigan coaching staff.
The drama over concussion awareness has already had as much negative impact as good for football and what is good for players in general. Yet, while the UM (fan) media positions itself on the moral high ground on the issue, newspapers reporting on the controversy like the Detroit Free Press didn’t even mention Morris’ first name until used in quote from the Athletic director.
Even members of the most dimwitted, populist mob would like to be fooled into believing the individual is more important than the agenda. So, I would suggest if you’re going to stake out the argument that an organization doesn’t care about a kid…use his full name when describing the incident.
In a weird way, this win over Penn State may be what too many Michigan fans DIDN’T want but it was exactly what they deserved. Yes, I rooted for Penn State but I have to say congratulations, Coach Hoke, that was a good win for you and an outcome that everyone involved deserved.

Oklahoma's Front Seven Might Be The Best In The Country

Mike Stoops, Tim Kish, Bobby Wright, and Jerry Montgomery all serve as defensive coaches on the Oklahoma staff. They also all helped implement the 3-4 defense to Oklahoma as of 2013.
Way back when Oklahoma and USC were the premier teams in college football, before the SEC was known as the best conference and before Tim Tebow, there was a defensive coach for the Sooners named Mike Stoops who made Oklahoma known for their tough and aggressive defenses. He helped the Sooners to two national championship games and a three BCS games in his five years with the Sooners. He then later became the head coach at Arizona, where he lead them to three straight bowl games but was eventually fired after seven and a half seasons with the Wildcats. He was then hired once again as Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator under older brother, Bob Stoops. He’s been the coordinator ever since and changed Oklahoma to a 3-4 base defense last season. He also brought in some help from Arizona with him to OU, linebackers coach Tim Kish.
Kish has been coaching linebackers since 1984, so he’s been in the business for quite some time. He spent eight seasons with Arizona and served as the interim head coach after Stoops was fired, but didn’t remain on the staff afterwards. He followed Stoops to Oklahoma in 2012, and has remained with the Sooners ever since.
Bobby Jack Wright has more Big 12 championship rings than any player or coach in history. But besides that he’s been coaching the Oklahoma defense since 1999 and has served as the assistant defensive coordinator since 2005. Wright helped coach Sooner greats Roy Williams and Tommie Harris early in his career at Oklahoma.
Jerry Montgomery is one of the best defensive line coaches in college football. Before he was doing it at Oklahoma, he was doing it at Michigan under Brady Hoke. He is an excellent recruiter and is great at using talent he recruits. He’s a big reason why Oklahoma beat Alabama last year in the Sugar Bowl and why the defense played great against Oklahoma State as well.

Charles Tapper
Charles Tapper, 91, Should have a good year at DT

Those four coaches all got to Oklahoma one way or another and they all helped Oklahoma in their three year transition into a 3-4 defense. The two year process started out with a lot of struggles. In 2012, the Sooners were manhandled by Notre Dame at home and then got ran over by Johnny Manziel and the Texas A&M Aggies. The year before they lost a shootout to Texas Tech at home, once again got outgunned by RG3 and Baylor, and then slaughtered in the Bedlam series against Oklahoma State. Oklahoma’s defense was not playing to it’s potential, which is a big reason why last spring the staff decided to implement the 3-4 defense.
The 3-4 defense is becoming more and more popular in college football. Basically, it’s substituting a linemen for a linebacker. Oklahoma’s linebackers struggled greatly in 2012 with linebackers despite the talent being there, with a 3-4 defense it puts more linebackers on the field to where it’s less thinking and more doing for the linebackers. It also confuses the opposing quarterbacks to where he has to guess which linebacker is coming in where. It creates more confusion and more possibilities for the defense to get to the quarterback.
It works when you have a great run stopper, a great pass rusher, and an athletic defensive end. Oklahoma’s roster happens to have all three this upcoming season ( and a couple others who help shape this 3-4 defense).
LB Eric Striker is a quarterbacks worst nightmare. (6.5 sacks)
LB Frank Shannon is a tackling machine. (55 tackles, 1 int)
DE Geneo Grissom had two touchdowns last season playing at defensive end. (40 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 Int, 1 FR, 2 TD’s)
Joining the three headed monster in the front seven include :
DT Charles Tapper who is just a beast of his own. (5.5 sacks, 49 tackles, 9 TFL)
DT Jordan Phillips (injured last season)
DT Jordan Wade (17 tackles, two blocked field goals)
LB  Dominique Alexander (50 tackles, 2 FF)
All four of those players should make All Big-12 first team, and I wouldn’t be surpised if Striker was a first team all american. The front seven as a whole is just downright a scary roster. One of, if not the best in the entire country.
They should all also help the Oklahoma defense turn out to be one of the best defenses in the country next season. That group is a big reason why Phil Steele has the Oklahoma defense ranked 4th in the country in his power rankings. It should be the best in the Big 12, and should compete with Alabama, Florida State, and Michigan State for the best in the country.
The only concern is the youth in the defensive back area, but senior safety Julian Wilson should help the youngsters in the secondary. I’m also excited to see what freshman safety Steven Parker can do. He was highly recrutied out of high school and should have an immediate impact at Oklahoma. Cornerback Zack Sanchez is one of the best young corners in the country after making the FWAA Freshmen All-American team this past year, but his big plays barely overshadow the mistakes he made last season. Becoming more consistent should be key for the young defensive back. When you have a great pass rusher like Eric Striker it helps out the pass game too.
The Sooners as a whole have a very talented defense, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be considered one of the best in the nation. With a favorable schedule getting their two best offensive opponents at home (Kansas State and Baylor) the Sooners may have a chance to run the table in the very competitive Big 12 this season. But it all starts with the front seven.
 
 
 
 

The One Where LeBron James Serves Crow

14-examples-of-lebron-james-incredible-work-ethic

We were in all in limbo, just waiting on LeBron James. More importantly, I was at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, much more anxiously awaiting my wife’s return from a business trip. If you’re familiar with the words I’ve offered regarding James in the last four years, you probably know that I haven’t been on board with this idea of a return, redemption, whatever we were going to call it. It would actually be fair to say I opposed this reunion. However, as desperation lurked and it felt like Cleveland was about to strike out once again, somehow it felt like it could be worse than four years ago, I couldn’t root for the city to fail again.

That’s what anything not involving an immediate future in Cavaliers uniform for the Akron native would have amounted to, a failure. Landing LeBron was what they were trying to do, whatever level of satisfaction I’d have gotten out of that would have been canceled out by what would sure feel like a repeat of 2010; that goes without saying. I decided, just hours before the big reveal, it’s time to come around. When it doesn’t happen, I have to go down with the ship. Now, my genuine opinion was then, and is now, that I still don’t want to join him (or have him join “Us”, I mean the Cavs), I want to beat him. It’s funny, because for so long I was convinced there was no way. While we waited, me for my wife’s flight from Dallas and the rest of the world for LeBron’s second decision in four years and two days, I began to scratch out a Facebook post.

I used phrases like “walking into a buzzsaw”, “boarding the Titanic”, and “turning into the skid”, but before I could finish the thought and hit post, the phone rang. She was here, she was ready to come home. Though I’d held down the fort at the ranch for three days, I needed her for our house to be a home. I know there’s an obvious tie to LeBron and Savannah to be made, but not at 10:30 PM, and not at Terminal 4, the Barry Goldwater terminal. My latest commentary on NBA Free Agency would have to wait; I had my better half back, with better being the understatement of the century.

butchmarsellus
Once upon a time, I’d hoped to revoke LeBron’s Cleveland privileges, to deny him a chance to come home. It turns out, that’s a foolish way of thinking about this.

Since the prospect of a return could almost be heard in the very echoes of “taking my talents to South Beach”, I put my foot down. No. As many ways as I could say it, it wasn’t an option. In the immediate aftermath, I recall commenting on a Cleveland Frowns post, as if I was Marcellus telling Butch he lost his L.A. privileges at the end of Pulp Fiction. I wasn’t quite as stung by “The Decision” as Cavs fans that actually live Northeast Ohio probably were, but you know I didn’t appreciate him stepping on my former community, and you’ve all heard it a thousand times; it wasn’t that he left, but how.

I don’t know how many times I wrote about James after he joined the Heat, probably few enough to count on one hand. I guess I had plenty to write, but there would have been a certain irony to constantly writing 2500 words that basically said, “who cares about LeBron James?” would be ironic, hypocritical, or both. I was forever disappointed that he remained a part of the Cleveland news cycle, and some of the ways they tied him to whatever it was didn’t just reach ridiculous speed, but it was plaid levels of ludicrous, minus the Southern Hospitality of course.

As a matter of fact, my final straw with ESPN came a year later on Labor Day when LeBron’s tweet about Maryland’s new outrageous Under Armour look made Sportscenter. I mean, it’s the new age of media and it was more about my lack of fascination with LeBron James, the small forward for the Miami Heat, than it was about Sportscenter giving him air-time on a tangent like that. The truth is, as much as we shake our heads at ESPN and other outlets from a Cleveland perspective, many viewers want that superfluous news about their almighty king.

I don’t know how well I speak for Cleveland and Cavs fans in general, but I don’t like being the target of the jokes. The jokes are nothing new, from Johnny Carson to Conan O’Brien, right on up to Dan LeBatard and Bomani Jones. People like the Cleveland jokes, as evidenced by comment sections and social media, but we do our best to debunk the stereotype and dismiss the brash commentary for the satire that it often is. Of all the emotion and anger I inadvertently experienced over these last four years, two things stick out.

Too big a deal was made of this. It wasn’t the writing on the wall.

I never wanted to be Knick fan, circa 2007-2010. James wore a New York Yankees cap to a playoff game in Cleveland, a game where the Bronx Bomber populated the visitor’s dugout. It was in poor taste to be sure, but we don’t even have the bandwidth here for me to list everything I did in poor taste at the age of 22, so I don’t dwell on it. In the aftermath of that, around the time of hosting gig on New York-based Saturday Night Live, it was revealed that the Big Apple was among his favorite cities on a list that included Akron, but not Cleveland. That began the speculation.

“In two years, LeBron is going to leave Cleveland; how do you feel about that, Jeff?”

I didn’t feel it was true, so I didn’t feel anything. It’s the same way I feel about ManBearPig and the Succubus. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about things that probably don’t exit. It was all a creation of the New York media. The best thing about the words “South Beach” is that they weren’t “Times Square” or “The City That Never Sleeps”. There was no reward for being obnoxious about courting the guy when the Cavs visited Madison Square, and to search for a silver lining to the events of July 8, 2010, one might have found it in the fact that the Knicks cleared cap space for Amare Stoudemire and little else.

I don’t particularly have anything against New York, but I found their fans to be out of line for such an extended period of time, multiple seasons. I thought it foolish of Cavs fans to act in the same manner, to pine for the summer of 2014, stating in 2012 that we wear egg on our faces if we subscribe to “The Return” for two seasons. When the kid ran on the floor with the Heat in town last year, I think I found myself to be in the minority. While I felt like this behavior shouldn’t be rewarded, this guy was made to be a celebrity. I was more about letting burnt bridges remain burnt.

Speaking of burning…

“You’re from Cleveland? So, you hate Art Modell and burned your LeBron jersey?”

I didn’t participate in any LeBron-fires and I’ll take the fifth on whether or not “hate” is the right word for Modell and the bomb he dropped on us in 1995. I threw everything away, not necessarily to be spiteful, but because I was never going to wear any of it again. Looking back, it was spiteful not to donate them and there was an admitted level of satisfaction that ran through me as I dropped them in a trash can soiled with cat litter and the excrement of three cats. We definitely try to deny spite as a motivating factor for actions, and even if you try to take it back, it’s too late, because you already said spite.

Daily Seinfeld
“Well you already said spite so…”

Spite is a real thing, but I found it difficult to believe it was a factor in any of this. A lot of mistakes were made, with ego playing a role in the case of both LeBron James and Dan Gilbert, but you absolutely expected more out of the banking billionaire. Well, some of the fans, the ones that would be stuck with a 19-win team the next season, did not see it as anything more than one voice representing the feelings of many. Of course, if either side still held a grudge, we probably wouldn’t have been hearing the Cavs were really the contenders to yell it out, “Winner, winner. Chicken dinner.”

Beating him ceased to be an option when Sports Illustrated published an essay called “I’m Coming Home” on Friday morning. It was a first-hand account to Lee Jenkins at the magazine, and it covered everything. To say that it was well done, be it the words in the message or the method with which the big news was delivered, would have been an understatement. He covered everything, leaving the naysayers with just about nothing to say nay about. This young man, who we believe to be a good father and husband, claims to have a lot of respect for the history of the game, but forget about the game. How about just plain old history?

You see, there’s this font called “Comic Sans”, and one night Dan Gilbert wrote a letter that said…

Being well-versed in history won’t help the average person land a job, but the reason history is important is that we are supposed to learn from our mistakes. Those days in July of 2010 were full of mistakes. You could have blamed Maverick Carter, Rich Paul or LeBron. Many opted to blame Dan Gilbert, but regardless of the direction fingers were being pointed, The Decision lent itself to teachable moments. Four years later, i’s were dotted and t’s were crossed; communication was good. Outlandish promises weren’t made and the Man of the Hour paid homage to what he’d soon lose in the rear-view mirror as South Florida starts to become memory, as well as what lies ahead as he looks through the windshield on the trip north on I-77. He wants to be a leader, instead of just saying the words. What he wants, is to be home.

We should all want it too, as much as some of us want to be stubborn and proud. Being belligerent, as much as it might validate one’s desire to stick to his or her convictions, doesn’t do the type of things for your area that 41 sold out games can do. These words seem like they’d have been difficult to produce just a few days ago, because still, to hell with LeBron James and winning games, or so I thought. Now, I can’t believe I’ve come around. Just days ago, the blood boiled over generalizations that you’re an idiot not to want the best player in the game; I even saw it suggested that said “idiots” should be beaten with a bag of scorpions. Look, I respect everyone’s right to an opinion, but there might be a right and a wrong on this subject.

Being happy, thrilled even, seems like the right call. I am just left with one question; when forced to eat this crow, may I season it with black pepper? I just can’t bring myself to be salty. To use the words of James, who am I to hold a grudge?

At the airport, you hear it a lot, welcome home; I think you can always go back.  There’s no place like it.

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Postscript: I didn’t really feel this properly fit the context of this post, but I felt it should be included as a footnote.  About a year ago, I had the misfortune of attending the memorial service of a friend taken from us far too early.  I remember looking around the room, identifying his closest friends in various places, knowing that I honestly wasn’t among that group.  We’d reached the point in the service where it was time to volunteer to share, and it was nothing but crickets and tumbleweeds.  It was uncomfortable; a room full of people that couldn’t hide their tears had nothing to say.

My hand went up.  I don’t remember what I said, as it wasn’t anything rehearsed, but just genuine thoughts and memories from the heart.  I wrapped it up and anxiously awaited another volunteer to eulogize this friend.  At the repast, or post-funeral reception, an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in some time approached me to thank me for speaking.  He qualified the compliment with a plain declaration that he never liked me, but saw something in me at that mortuary that he found admirable.  He told me that he never thought I’d be capable of maturing into the man that I was that day, in a time of grief.

You walk away from a moment like that, both ashamed and proud.  As long as the shamed part of you is in the past and the prideful part remains in the present, you’re doing alright.  Having gone down this road, a sometimes difficult path, I believe that others are capable of growing.  I, at the very least, owe some people the benefit of the doubt.

The Tribe is Creepin' On Ah Come Up

Some call it comeuppance and some call it getting a pound of flesh. In baseball, more so than most other things in the world, things have a way of evening themselves out; of course, the timing isn’t always the way we’d like to think it should be. Now think about the Cleveland Indians since Terry Francona has assumed the helm, and remember that they needed every one of those 92 wins in 2013. Technically, two more wins would have given them a Central Division title, though we know Detroit collected their $200 and stopped on “Go” last September. In that same breath, two fewer victories, whether you subtract a game or two from that four-game sweep over Oakland last May or any of those games with Chicago in September they had no business winning, would have put the Tribe in a mad dash for tee times as the Major League Baseball post-season commenced last October.

Glancing at the calendar, I see it’s June and we can hardly call this season new at this point, but what goes around, comes around for the Cleveland Indians. After enjoying a 17-2 season series against the White Sox, a comedy of righteous moments that literally took words out of White Sox play-by-play personality Ken “Hawk” Harrelson’s mouth on several occasions. Now, taking 17 of 19 from anyone other than Houston involves a good share of favorable bounces, like the divine intervention that gave them the double-header sweep at “New Comiskey” on June 28th last year. In Game 1, we were all disappointed to see Trevor Bauer fail to get three outs in the first inning of a start, putting the Tribe in a 5-0 hole before batting in the top of the second inning; response runs were there for the taking, however, and after evening things up in the next frame, the Tribe would cruise to 19-8 victory. The night-cap was all White Sox and this twinbill was destined for a split until the away team put up 4 runs on 4 hits in the top of the ninth off Chicago closer Addison Reed for a 9-8 win. Downing the south-siders was just how it went in 2013; Jason Giambi had two walk-off bombs against Chicago in a year that he did little else on the stat sheet.

Thus far, it’s been a different story when it comes to Robin Ventura’s squad and the Braves of the Cuyahoga. While I personally don’t care for those that dismiss teams that are strong in the 1-run games as teams that should regress back to the mean, you have to admit four walk-off wins in nine home games opens the door for the credit to go to Lady Luck, but you can counter that by pointing out the back end bullpen is a big part of the game. The Indians know it all too well, having dropped two in walk-off fashion on the South Side already this season, and a third at home, where John Axford yielded three runs in the ninth, instead of locking down a 3-1 victory. Through 10 games, the upstart White Sox have taken 7 of 10 from the Indians, and sit in second place in the division, one half game above the Tribe, who trail division-leading Detroit by just 3 games. Better the standings look like this in early June, rather than early October.

Speaking of October, the Oakland Athletics have found themselves on the dance-floor in each of the last two seasons, and appear to be on their way back this season. I know it’s simple, but success comes in winning more games than you lose, and the A’s did that, turning out Win-Loss records of .500 or better against all but three of their opponents a year ago; they dropped 11 of 19 against Seattle, despite outscoring them by 5 runs on the season, and went 2-5 against the Orioles and the Indians. They were swept in Cleveland last May, on the strength of some solid starting pitching (the Cleveland starter got the win in each game), but also with the benefit of the doubt; an Adam Rosales ninth inning double that obviously cleared the threshold for home run somehow could not be upgraded with the aid of replay and Rosales was eventually stranded on third base when Chris Perez saved a 4-3 win for the Tribe. Oakland did bounce back in August, taking 2 of 3 from the slumping Indians at the Coliseum on the East Bay, but could only salvage 2 wins in 7 tries.

You might say Bob Melvin’s squad went out and got their pound of flesh, when it came avenging their dismal showing against the Tribe in 2013, being in the clubhouse with a 4-2 season-series win over the Tribe. It looked like it might be more of the same after the Indians took 2 of 3 in the season-opening series, with former Indians southpaw Scott Kazmir salvaging the only victory the A’s could manage to get on the west coast, but they responded to last season’s 4-game sweep at Progressive Field by taking all three games at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. In the six games, Oakland outscored the Indians 40 to 15. Through 60 games in 2014, the A’s have outscored their opponents by 120 runs and sit 14 games over .500. The Indians, on the other hand, are in the red on run differential to-date, despite breaking even in the win column.

On the bright side, there is a flip side to this coin. Some might say this exposed the Indians for what they really were a season ago, a team that could beat up on the bums and didn’t belong in the same ballpark with the real contenders, but they stunk against the other playoff qualifiers in 2013. In seven games with the eventual World Champs, Francona’s former team took six. They were 2-4 against Tampa Bay and 4-15 against Detroit, who ended up just one game better than the Indians in the Central Division standings, a fact that needs to be qualified (again), since Jim Leyland shut the team down for a meaningless series in Miami to end the regular season. Being taken behind the woodshed by the contenders, thus exposing the Tribe as “pretenders”, provided some balance in the grand scheme, essentially canceling out their mastery of the American League bottom-feeders.

We probably didn’t think about it too much, as it was happening with the Red Sox, given the Red Sox were so emotionally charged when they came to Cleveland in April, on literally the day of the Boston Marathon tragedy. The one they call Tito would only get one win in seven tries against the organization he once to led to their first title in 86 years, when his lineup torched Ryan Dempster, Clayton Mortensen, and Alex Wilson for 12 runs in a 12-3 win at Fenway. As far as bouncing back is concerned, the sample size is a little small and we really have no idea what to make of the 2014 Red Sox, but they just completed a 3-game series sweep of Big Papi and company, which has to be a huge weight off the shoulders of Francona, whether he admits it or not.  Let’s also consider how many good things happened, as it pertained to confidence going forward in the series that ended with Asdrubal Cabrera’s walk-off home run to secure the sweep on Wednesday night (Thursday morning, to be technical).

asdrubalwalkoff

Then, you have Detroit, the team that knocks the Indians off their pedestal anytime they’ve gotten a little momentum in recent years. I’m sure most of us have not forgotten how quickly the 2011 came out of the gates, starting 30-15, an amazing run that included 3-game sweep of the Tigers, two of those wins coming in the form of walk-offs. Well, the next time the two teams met in June, the Tigers took two of three, knocking the Indians down to 36-31 and into second place in the division. In August of that year, the Tribe took a series at home, putting them within 3 games of Detroit’s divsion lead, but the Tigers won the last 10 matchups that year, and thoughts of the post-season were laughable by season’s end.

A year later, in 2012, it was a lot more of the same. Hell, the stat sheet shows the Tribe took the season series 10-8, but it comes down to the team from the Motor City killing their spirits. They were still outscored by 15 runs over the course of 18 games. They won 7 of the first 9, including a 5-3 win on July 26th that had some fools believing there was still life in this club. Of course, you can’t solely blame the Tigers for the 11 game losing streak that followed that inspiring win, though they were responsible for losses 7, 8, and 9. They’d pull out a couple more, and even scored one last walk-off win against Jose Valverde (aka Papa Grande) in September, you know, for old time’s sake. But much like [SPOILER ALERT] Tessio in Part I, the Indians and Manny Acta were already dead.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d30Y0n1nDH4

Well, that wasn’t a depressing walk down memory lane or anything! Let’s bring it back to the present-day, and though we have learned to taper our emotions after early-season success, the clubhouse had to have been buzzing at the comeuppance that came with sweeping the Tigers at home last month, and the balk-off could really be seen as the exclamation point. Again, we look at our calendar and we know that it’s early, that this 4-to-1 advantage the Tribe currently holds over the Tigers could easily be 5-14 by season’s end, a la last year, but things feel different this year for some reason. Perhaps we’ve already seen the woes this team inevitably experiences every year since Dick Jacobs family name was taken off the ballpark’s marquee.

They didn’t get to 30-30 by starting 30-15, but from 24-30 (their low-water mark). They’ve shown they can beat Detroit and they can beat Boston, and it’s too early to think about whether or not they can beat San Francisco; they’re 0-3 this season and 0-6 in their last six tries, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Of course, if they don’t cross that bridge, they are only 2-4 against the team that shares the bay, so there are multiple pounds of flesh to be had in Northern California, come October, I suppose.

That’s a concern for another time, of course, but the Indians were left for dead just a few weeks back and now, to quote everyone second favorite Bone Thugs ‘N Harmony album, they are creepin’ on a come up. So, to all you busters out there, beware!