Cleveland Fans Have Things to be Thankful For

With the first big holiday of the 2005 Holiday Season, Thanksgiving Day, it is time to reflect on what the Cleveland sports fan has to be thankful for.  As you know, I am not a believer in the sports curse, or Kenny Roda’s whining "OIC (Only in Cleveland)" mentality that Phil Savage denounced when hired here.  There are plenty of things we fans can be appreciative of on this day of thanks.
1).  LeBron James:  How lucky are we to watch James play on a nightly basis?  The soon to be 21 year old might be the best player in the NBA right now!  He is the best athlete to play in Cleveland since Jim Brown in the late fifties/early sixties.
2).  Daniel Gilbert:  He came in with blazing guns after buying the team, but since he has remained in the background and hired the right people to run the Cavaliers.  Mike Brown stresses defense, but remains flexible enough to be coaching one of the highest scoring teams in the NBA.  Danny Ferry signed Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall, and Damon Jones who seem to be perfect fits with this team. 
3).  Mark Shapiro:  The Indians GM called his shot in 2001, saying the Tribe would return to contender status in 2005.  They did, and he was awarded with Executive of the Year honors.  No one does more with a small payroll than Shapiro.  Hopefully, Larry Dolan will open the coffers a bit for 2006.
4).  Phil Savage/Romeo Crennel:  If you think I am very optimistic about the Cleveland professional sports scene, I am due to the people in place running the franchises.  Savage is the best talent evaluator the Browns have had since Ernie Accorsi was running things in the mid 1980’s.  Crennel is a breath of fresh air after the constant spinning by Butch Davis.  That these Browns have already won four games this year is a tribute to these two men.  Most felt four wins for the entire season would be good for the Cleveland football team. 
5).  The young Tribesmen:  How many major league teams have so many good players under the age of 30?  The Indians have Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez, Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta, C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Coco Crisp.  The Indians should be contenders for the post season for the next three or four years at least.
6).  Larry Hughes:  The perfect complement to LeBron James, Danny Ferry passed on shooters like Ray Allen and Michael Redd to get the best all around guard available in free agency.  In the last five games, Hughes has shown that he is the total package, scoring, rebounding, passing, and playing stellar defense. 
7).  Les Levine:  More Sports and Les Levine on Adelphia Channel 15 is a must view for fans wanting the inside scoop.  The long time sports talker brings sportswriters to TV with his Plain Dealer Roundtable on Monday, and frequent guests like Terry Pluto, Sheldon Ocker, Brian Windhorst, and Jim Ingraham. 
No woe is us here.  The future of sports on the North Coast is bright thanks in part to the people mentioned here.  Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

Browns and Bucks Both Triumph

It was a great football weekend in Northeastern Ohio as Ohio State snatched victory from the jaws of defeat at Ann Arbor, and the Browns shut out the Miami Dolphins, 22-0.  The Buckeyes dominated the game despite the close 25-21 score, and the Browns game marked the regular season debut of rookie quarterback Charlie Frye and another great performance by Reuben Droughns. 
At the Big House on Saturday, the Buckeyes jumped on the Wolverines early, going up 9-0 after the first two drives.  A fumble by reserve running back Maurice Wells allowed Michigan to get back in the game, and then Coach Jim Tressel went conservative allowing the Maize and Blue to take the lead in the third quarter.  The OSU offense refused to throw the ball downfield allowed the Wolverines to play tight coverage and limit yards after the catch by Buckeye receivers. 
Ted Ginn Jr. had problems fielding punts all day, fumbling two, losing one.  The Buckeye defense rarely blitzed Chad Henne after employing that strategy most of the season against all opponents.  Perhaps the loss of star linebacker Bobby Carpenter played a part in this strategy, but it was still curious considering Michigan could not run the football at all. 
After Ohio State fell behind, Troy Smith started throwing the deep middle routes that ABC commentator Gary Danielson said were open all along.  The first drive culminated in a TD pass to Santonio Holmes, who received an awful "celebration foul" for diving into the end zone.  The second long pass was to Anthony Gonzalez on the drive in which the Bucks scored the game winning touchdown.  Tressel redeemed himself by opening up the play calling, and he picked up his fourth win in five tries against Lloyd Carr.  Ohio State likely will go to a BCS Bowl game for the third time in Tressel’s tenure.
Surprisingly, the Browns had an easy go of it against Miami Dolphins, getting their first shutout since 2001.  Droughns rushed for 166 yards in 3o carries as he continues to seek out his second straight 1000 yard season, and the first by a Cleveland Brown in 20 years.  Braylon Edwards put his money were his mouth is by hauling in six balls for 90 yards, and the defense caused two turnovers.
The real news came after the game when QB Trent Dilfer showed his displeasure with Charlie Frye being inserted for a series in each half.  Dilfer said he disagreed with the decision, but will go along with it.  He even awarded Frye the game ball for his performance.  The quarterback’s reaction was stunning since he has been so team oriented during his time here.  My guess is that the emotions of the game were still in play and Dilfer will change his tune and be understanding of the move.
The Browns need to see what Frye can do before the end of the season.  Not in practice or on films from the exhibition season, but in real NFL action.  Dilfer has been the consumate professional, but he should realize he is not the future of this franchise.  Frye might be, and that’s what Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel need to find out.

The Frontrunners Come Out in Rivalries

Last week it was Browns vs. Steelers.  This week it is Ohio State vs. Michigan.  The intensity is high not only on the field, but in the stands as well.  A strange creature emerges during the week these games are played.  They are the people who live in Cleveland, but root for the Steelers and/or the Wolverines.  Perhaps you know one of these insidious creatures.
Now, I’m not talking about those who grew up in Pittsburgh and Michigan and continue to support those teams.  I’m sure if I moved to another city, I would continue to root for the Indians, Browns, Cavaliers, and Buckeyes.  Heck, I’ve rooted for them my entire life.  I’m referring to those who grew up in Northeast Ohio, yet have switched over to the dark side.
Most of these frontrunners who support the black and gold grew up in the seventies, when the Steelers were the dominant team in the NFL, winning four Super Bowls.  They have no recollection that from 1950-1970, Pittsburgh was pretty much the doormat of the NFL.  These fans can usually be rooted out by asking if they follow the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Normally, the answer is no, because the Pirates have not won a division title since the early nineties.  Since then, the Indians have been to two World Series. 
These Terrible Towel (by the way, is there anything more stupid than that?) waving idiots don’t realize the Steelers haven’t won the Lombardi Trophy since the 70’s.  Sure, they’ve been to some AFC title games and one Super Bowl since, but have come up short due to their coach, Bill Cowher.  Cowher is a disciple of former Browns’ coach Marty Schottenheimer, and has picked up his nasty little habit of losing the big game.  However, the Steelers are where the Browns want to go, so we will not go further. 
These fans will come back to the Browns when Cleveland is successful for awhile and Pittsburgh takes a downward turn. 
The Michigan loyalists are just as ridiculous.  I have a friend who grew up in Parma and roots for Michigan, especially against Ohio State.  His rationale is that he hated Woody Hayes when he was a kid, so he rooted for the maize and blue.  Who was coaching Michigan at the time?  Bo Schembechler, nicknamed "Little Woody" by the media. 
I always ask him did he realize he was for the team whose coach was a younger version of his hated Hayes?  It doesn’t matter.  Logic is lost here.  It was bad for Buckeye fans when John Cooper was the head man at OSU, and never got how important the rivalry is. Woody Hayes knew.  Earle Bruce knew.  Jim Tressel knows.  That’s why it will be fun when the Scarlet and Gray win for the four time in Tressel’s five years on Saturday. 
The contrarians in Ohio will have to hide their Michigan gear for another year.  Either that or trade it in for some Ohio State stuff.  Anyway, this is way these rivalries are so much fun.  It is always good to have a knockdown, drag out sports argument.

It Was Ugly in Pittsburgh

If you are a Browns fan, you should have turned off the television after the opening kickoff and the first offensive series by Cleveland.  After that, it all went down in a hurry.  Dropped passes, fumbles, and some hard hitting by the Steeler defense led to a 34-21 defeat at the hands of the black and gold.
The Browns are home next week against the Miami Dolphins, and it is now time to see what Charlie Frye can bring to the table.  By no means, am I implying that the performance of the team is Trent Dilfer’s fault.  Quite the contrary.  Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage need to see what the rookie from Akron can do, and with the club’s record at 3-6, what is there to lose? 
This should be done in tandem with starting Braylon Edwards at wide receiver and diminishing Dennis Northcutt’s role with the team.  Frye and Edwards seem to have developed a friendship, and may have a chemistry.  This is the time to start making the #1 draft pick your featured receiver, and make Antonio Bryant the #2 wide out.  It is also time to start getting some of the other rookies on the field in pressure situations so they can get the feel of competing in the NFL.
Once again, Reuben Droughns came to play, running over Steeler defenders, and catching the ball out of the backfield.  The back from Oregon continues to show tremendous heart, and his nine yard gain from the Browns own 1 yard line late in the first quarter should be on the team’s highlight film at the end of the season.
Fans are upset about yesterday’s performance, so it must be said again…This team is building from the ground up!  It was pointed out during the game that the Browns will be about $30 million under the salary cap after this season, so the opportunity for improvement is there.  The coaching staff will be finding out which players have a future in Cleveland, and those who won’t will be released.  Savage is already talking to Andra Davis and Orpheus Roye about returning in 2006.  Guys like Northcutt, William Green, and maybe even Lee Suggs will not return.
Everyone should also remember why Trent Dilfer was brought in.  It was to give the team a sense of professionalism and also to tutor Charlie Frye.  It appears he has done both.  No one expected him to be Peyton Manning or Joe Montana.  He was expected to be a pro, and he is. 
The future of this team starts next week against the Dolphins, Charlie Frye is that future.  He should be the starter against  Miami.

Say Goodbye to Millwood

News surfaced from baseball’s General Manager meetings that Kevin Millwood’s agent, Scott Boras, is seeking a five year contract for the righthander who led the American League in ERA in 2005.  Indians’ GM Mark Shapiro, who won the Executive of the Year Award from The Sporting News at the meetings, will never give Millwood that long of a deal, nor should he.
In fact, it would be a stretch to give the 30 year old pitcher a guaranteed four year deal as well.  Let’s face it, pitchers are more prone to injury than everyday players, and think about the payroll struggle the Tribe would be in if Millwood hurt his right arm in year one of a four year pact.  They would be seriously hamstrung on money for the remainder of the deal. 
Boras’ wish for a five year deal means the end of Millwood’s time with Cleveland, and I don’t have a problem with that.  So, Shapiro will have to look elsewhere for a front of the rotation hurler.  Matt Morris, Jarrod Washburn, Esteban Loaiza, and Paul Byrd are the best available options, but Morris and Washburn are the most consistent over the long haul. 
It has also been reported that reliever Bob Howry wants a three year deal.  If Howry signs, it means that Bob Wickman will not return to Cleveland.  You have to remember that the Indians have Arthur Rhodes and Matt Miller returning from injury, and Fernando Cabrera could be with the team all year.  I would ink Howry if the money is right. 
With the slim pickings in the free agent market, the Indians will probably have to look at making trades to obtain the first baseman or right fielder they seek.  They also could be in the market for a starting pitcher who will be a free agent at the end of the 2006 season, and whose current team doesn’t feel can sign him.  Cleveland still has a very good farm system. 
The front office has to be happy with the performance of Ryan Garko, Brad Snyder, and Brian Slocum in the Arizona Fall League.  Garko, my choice to play first base in 2006, is hitting .314 with 5 HR and 27 RBI.  His RBI total ranks third in the AFL.  The right handed hitter, who can also catch, has hit for power and average wherever he has played in the minors, and comes from a top notch college program at Stanford. 
Snyder, drafted out of Ball State in 2004, has been a big surprise, hitting .367 with 3 HR and 19 RBI.  Snyder will open next season at either Class AA Akron or Class AAA Buffalo, and may arrive in Cleveland next year.  He can play right field, so he may be the long term answer at that spot, competing with Franklin Gutierrez.  Snyder does strike out a lot (26 times in 98 at bats), which is something he must improve on.
Slocum, a right handed pitcher, has pitched well out of the bullpen compiling a 2-1 record with a 3.15 ERA in 20 innings.  He has struck out 19 and walked 8 in his outings, and hitters are batting just .192 against him.  He likely will start 2006 at Akron or Buffalo after a 7-5 mark in Class AA last season. 

Droughns Was the Key to Browns 20-14 Win.

It has been a long time since we have seen the toughness from a Browns’ player similar to what was seen yesterday from running back Reuben Droughns.  After his arrest on a DUI charge on Monday night and people wondering if he would be suspended (which was ludicrous), the former Oregon star put the offense on his back in Sunday’s 20-14 victory over the Tennessee Titans.
Droughns carried 20 times for 116 yards, and caught four more passes for 73 yards in a game played in windy conditions.  He got stronger in the second half as well.  He even retrieved the ball rookie Jason Wright carried when he scored his first professional touchdown in the second half.  He has demonstrated that he is the type of quality person, his DUI not withstanding, that Phil Savage wants on his team.  Speaking of the trouble the running back had, he didn’t make excuses about it.  He accepted the blame and responsibility.
In his last three games, Droughns ran for 100 yards against the Lions, 99 yards vs. the Texans, and yesterday’s 116.  He is on pace to rush for almost 1300 yards this season, which not only would be the first season of this type by a Brown since Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner in 1985, but it is also not a cheap 1000 yard campaign.  A running back can achieve this plateau by averaging just 63 yards per game, which isn’t a good game.  Droughns is currently averaging about 80 yards per outing.
The former Bronco is also durable, something needed since William Green has been unreliable since being drafted, and Lee Suggs spends more time on the injured list than actually carrying the football.  Granted, he left yesterday’s game with cramps, but he has been there for every game.  Droughns may not be the featured back when Cleveland is ready to return to the playoffs, but he has given credibility to the running game this season.
The Browns finished the first half of the 2005 season with a 3-5 record, right on pace for the 6-10 record most felt would be the best the team could achieve.  This year’s team has character.  They responded to last week’s disaster against the winless Texans by winning their next game.  Getting players like Trent Dilfer and Droughns to teach professionalism to the young players will show up in the next few years. 
They will not let the Cleveland Browns quit until after the last game of the season.  That couldn’t be said in recent years.

Cavs' Victory is the Highlight at the "Q"

The Cavaliers opened the 2005-06 season with a 109-87 victory over the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets last night, and their performance was indeed the best thing about the evening at Quicken Loans Arena.  LeBron James was his usual incredible self, hitting four three pointers in a span of 1:44 late in the 2nd quarter and igniting the crowd. 
Newcomers Donyell Marshall, Larry Hughes, and Damon Jones also had solid performances.  Marshall is the type of player this team needs.  He is a very good player, who has played on several bad teams as of late.  He looks at this opportunity as his last chance to play on a team that can make some noise in the playoffs.  I think that is very important for a young team.
Hughes didn’t score much, but played good defense and passed the ball well.  There will be nights where Hughes scores more because James will set him up.  The team has more talent and is much improved from last season, which ended in disappointment after a fast start.
Now for the atmosphere at the game.  I realize I am "old school", but I go to the game to…WATCH A BASKETBALL GAME!  New P.A. announcer Ronnie Duncan is more annoying to fans like me than he is entertaining.  Every player does not need a nickname.  We all know LeBron is "The Chosen One" or "King James", but why is Larry Hughes referred to as "Boogie".  When Duncan referred to a basket by Zydrunas Ilgauskas as "Z-licious", I was creeped out. 
The music played during the game is fine, but is there anyone over the age of five that thinks Moondog is entertaining?  I get the reference to music, since Cleveland is the home of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he is a terrible mascot.  He makes the Indians’ Slider look good, which is saying something.
I understand the NBA in general and the Cavaliers what to entertain the casual fan, it detracts from the sport.  When your team is terrible, you might need antics like these.  The Cavs’ look to be a good team in 2005-06, so the front office should focus on that and get rid of the bad entertainment. 

It's Always Something for the Browns

I realize I ‘m dating myself, but remember the early days of Saturday Night Live when Gilda Radner played a character named Rosanne Rosannadanna who ended her commentary by saying "It’s Always Something!"  That’s how the Cleveland Browns have to feel this morning after a 19-16 loss to the previously winless Houston Texans on Sunday.
This week it was the special teams that failed Romeo Crennel’s squad.  The defense played a solid game, allowing a first quarter touchdown and then only field goals despite being put in horrible field position.  Why the touchdown was not reviewed was a curious decision by the coaching staff.  It appeared that Jerome Mathis did not have clear possession of the ball.  The defense didn’t put a lot of pressure on the frequently sacked David Carr, but you cannot argue with the results, they allowed under 20 points again.
The offense made two critical mistakes, the fumbles by Trent Dilfer and Reuben Droughns, but you can’t say any player was horrible.  The only thing that sticks out in my mind is why the consistent insertions of William Green into the game in place of Droughns.  In fact, Green was the back the coaching staff went to on the last drive, even though Droughns had amassed 99 yards in the game up to that point.  Dennis Northcutt dropped a pass, but he has been a non-factor on offense recently.  The pass protection was good for the most part. 
However, the special teams were abysmal.  Punter Kyle Richardson may be looking for work after two shanked punts, the first giving the Texans great field position on their first touchdown.  The second led to a field goal miss by Houston kicker Kris Brown.  The return teams allowed Mathis to run wild on kickoffs, forcing Phil Dawson to have to attempt tackles, he made one and whiffed on the other. 
The fact that Crennel fixes one problem only to see another leak in the dyke makes for an obvious conclusion, the Cleveland Browns are not a very good football team.  The talent level just isn’t there at this point.  The team is still searching for an identity as well.  On defense, the " bend but don’t break"  approach has worked so far, but outside of Indianapolis, the team hasn’t stopped any very good offensive teams.  Andra Davis has showed he might be a Pro Bowl type player, but otherwise no one else really stands out.
Offensively, #1 draft pick Braylon Edwards looks like he will be a star, and Antonio Bryant has skills despite some ill timed drops. Barring injury,  Droughns will be the first Browns’ back to reach 1000 yards in a season since 1985.  Tight ends Steve Heiden and Aaron Shea are solid, but will be backups if Kellen Winslow Jr. ever takes the field.  The offensive line still needs to be improved, and Charlie Frye is the quarterback in waiting. 
There is a long way to go, but real fans understood that going into training camp.  The previous administration left a mess to clean up, and Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel can’t scrub fast enough.

Ramirez Would Be a Risk Worth Taking

Boston outfielder Manny Ramirez recently told the Red Sox if they wanted to trade him, he would only accept trades to the Angels, Diamondbacks, and his former team, the Cleveland Indians.  Ramirez has this right since he is a 10/5 man, meaning he has spent 10 years in the majors, the last five with the same team.  Since Tribe owner Larry Dolan has said he would spend money when the Indians are contenders (playing a meaningful game on the last day of the season would mean you are a contender), this would be a good place to start.
Ramirez will be just 34 years old next season.  He is flaky to be sure, but he is in the lineup for 150 games every year, as he has been for the last three seasons.  He doesn’t have any long term injury problems that would scare management.  He is not a great defensive player, but he was better than his reputation when he played in Cleveland previously.  And he still is arguably the best right handed hitter in the game, with a lifetime average of .314, 435 home runs, and 1414 RBI’s.  His lifetime OPS is 1.008, which is an outstanding season for some players.  For example, White Sox 1B Paul Konerko had a .909 OPS this season.
Manny would fit nicely into the Tribe lineup as a clean up hitter, batting between Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez.  Jhonny Peralta could drop to the sixth slot in the order.  While he wouldn’t be a Gold Glover in right field, I’m sure he could play there, and his defensive shortcomings wouldn’t be as noticeable with Grady Sizemore in center.  The Tribe could pick up a defensive replacement for Ramirez in the off season.
I’m sure Boston would want significant talent in return, but the more Dolan picks up of the contract, the less talent the Red Sox would accept in return.  They are looking for payroll relief more than anything else.  Perhaps one good prospect, one borderline prospect, and a guy like Ben Broussard might be enough to return Ramirez to the Wigwam. 
On the pitching side, since it is highly doubtful the Indians will resign Kevin Millwood, a free agent pitcher the Tribe should be intersted in is Cardinals’ righty Matt Morris.  Morris, 32 in August next season, has racked up over 170 innings the last five years, winning in double figures each of those years, capped by a 21 win season in 2001.  Morris also pitched better on the road in 2005. 
The big righty’s strikeout rate is a concern, in that he only fans 5.5 batters per nine innings, but he does have a low walk rate as well (1.7/9 IP).  Hitters batted .276 against Morris last year, which is a little high, but he doesn’t have to be a #1 starter with Cleveland.  He could be the third guy behind C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee. 
Barring a trade, Morris might be a nice fit in the Tribe rotation, and at less of a price tag and years on the contract as Millwood.
With the White Sox’ sweep in the World Series completed last night, the Hot Stove League season starts today.  Spring training starts in less than four months.  Let the roster moves begin!

Garcia Wasn't the Problem

Yesterday’s Browns-Lions game marked the return of Cleveland’s starting quarterback of 2004, Jeff Garcia.  Garcia was lustily booed at the start of the game, although I’m not sure why.  What was his crime?  He got injured, but I’m don’t think that was it.  He didn’t leave for free agency, the Browns didn’t want him back anyway.  Why the negative reaction.
The problem with Jeff Garcia last year was he was the proverbial square peg in a round hole.  Butch Davis wanted someone who would be patient with the running game, and work the play action pass.  (In reality, Davis wanted someone not named Tim Couch.)  Garcia is a west coast offense quarterback.  He is a guy who likes to run around and make something out of nothing.  He did that during the second half of yesterday’s game many times, as well as in the 37-34 overtime loss to the Eagles at Browns Stadium last season.   
Jeff Garcia didn’t do anything to irritate the fans.  If you want to boo someone, boo the decision to bring him here.  He was a poor fit from the beginning.
Speaking of quarterbacks, here’s hoping Romeo Crennel doesn’t play Charlie Frye this week against Houston.  The coach has to look at the big picture.  Let’s say Frye does well against the winless Texans on Sunday.  Crennel is then forced to continue playing the rookie for the rest of the season.  The Akron alum will have to see the Steelers defense twice, the Ravens again, as well as Jacksonville and Cincinnati.  Would Frye be helped or harmed by this exposure if he is not ready.  The last thing Phil Savage and Crennel needs is another Tim Couch situation.
This team is not going to make the playoffs.  The front office is not going to say this publicly, but they are making decisions geared toward 2006 and 2007.  That’s why Frye shouldn’t play yet.  He has to play before the season is over so Savage can evaluate him in case a Matt Leinart or Vince Young is there when the NFL Draft comes along.  But, next week is not the right time for Frye. 
Here’s another thing for the fans.  Quit bringing up Kelly Holcomb!  He is nothing but an average QB at best.  Wait a few weeks, and see what Buffalo is doing then.  Trent Dilfer is better suited to be a mentor to Frye than Holcomb.  Dilfer understands why he is here, Holcomb wants to start and has no interest in being a teacher. 
It’s tough to watch, but patience is the best thing for the Cleveland Browns.  And that patience means Trent Dilfer should keep his job.