Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Dude, where's my fullback?

All-Pro Fullback Vonta Leach has re-signed with the Baltimore Ravens, as the Cleveland Browns decided to stand pat with their "stud," Owen Marecic.  Is Marecic really so good that the Browns can afford to turn up their nose at all All-Pro at this position?

   In football, it really matters how good your 11th best man is.  The fans tend to look at their stars and blame them when things go bad, but football really is a team game, and if you have a weakness, the other team will exploit it.  This year, great attention was focused on Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden.  They did added receiving talent, with the likes of Davone Bess and slot receiver David Nelson.  Plus they have promising second year player Travis Benjamin and  former starter Jordan Norwood is returning from an injured ACL.   These fellows will complement drug enthusiast Josh Gordon (assuming he gives up his addiction to cough syrup) and drop specialist Greg Little, who averages an astonishing 40 receiving yards per game for his career (which of course is sufficient to cement his reputation in Cleveland as an emerging star).    But all in all they should have competent players to fill three and perhaps even four wide receiver sets.  

At tight end, the Browns figured they were so loaded with talent that they needed to clear salary cap space by getting rid of Ben Watson, who had only 500 receiving yards from tight end, plus backup Alex Smith who also played fullback last year.   Instead, they are banking on the incredible Jordan Cameron to take over the position, but initial training camp reports are not positive, as Browns safeties are pretty much having their way with him.  Well, perhaps that says more about the quality of the Browns' safeties, but I doubt it.  The Browns did trade for a backup tight end in Gary Barnidge, and a good blocking tight end in Kellen Davis.  Davis really struggled to catch the ball in Chicago, though, so in order to make the team he is going to have block for Trent Richardson and the Browns running game.    

     Ok, back to the fullback position.  The guy who is going to help propel Richardson to the 1500 yard mark is....Owen Marecic??  How can the team pass up a chance to sign a PRO BOWLER at fullback (yes I understand the Browns prefer younger players at this point, but do you really want Marecic over a PRO BOWLER just because he is younger?  And especially since they are way, way under the salary cap??).  To be fair, Owen has the reputation of being a hard worker and was very good in college (Stanford), but with the Browns he has struggled with blocking, receiving and running to the point where they were using backup tight end Alex Smith in the fullback position last year.  Now Smith is gone, as well as the aforementioned Watson, and thus Marecic has once again landed on top of the depth chart.  

Owen Marecic needs to work on blocking, running and receiving.  Everything else seems to be going great, though.

     Now, perhaps this is paranoid of me, but do you suppose there is a connection between the Browns recent behavior and the financial problems at Pilot Flying J?  This year the Browns cleared quite a bit of salary cap room by getting rid of Pro Bowlers Josh Cribbs and Phil Dawson, while also axing Ben Watson, Sheldon Brown, Usama Young, Frostee Rucker, Juqua Parker, Kaluka Maiva, Chris Gokong and Mohamad "Gluefingers" Massaquoi.  Granted some of these players deserved to be cut, but the point is that the Browns were way under the salary cap, but they only signed a few high priced replacements (linebacker Paul Kruger and DL Des Bryant), and much of the roster is still depleted.  How can the Browns cut all of those players and not replace them?  They cut nine guys that were first string at some point, and they signed about three that will start in 2013.  
     Once again, as they have done every year since 1999, they have approached the offseason as if they are a team loaded with talent, and the main task is to get rid of players they find fault with, rather than accumulate them. 

     I think that their operating capital is short, and this may partially explain why they stopped rebuilding.  Financial woes have hit Pilot Flying J and its CEO Jimmy ("it's under control") Haslam, who also owns the Browns.  With the company having to pay back millions in fraudulently withheld rebates and no doubt losing market share in the process, suddenly there is a cash squeeze, especially after they just shelled out a billion to buy out rival Flying J, and another billion to buy the Browns.  If they are short of cash, the banks will not lend them money with a federal indictment hanging over them.  I'll bet the Browns are slow to pay their bills, and they are just not in the position to offer a player like Vonta Leach a decent contract.  That's it, Browns fans.  No shopping spree for players this year after all.  Uncle Jimmy still has a lot of assets on paper, but right now he needs cash.  

    No Pro Bowl fullback, no top drawer tight end, no star cornerback and no starting safety this year, even though there is plenty of cap room to have picked up these players and more.  That's just the cruel reality.  

    Looks like we may have to wait until the next ownership group comes to town.  


 .   .

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Cleveland Browns Running Backs

   Last year, the Cleveland Browns running attack was very simple:  "All Trent, all the time!"  Despite playing with injured ribs, Trent Richardson was not only the feature back, but he was also the best third down back and the best short yardage back.

Trent Richardson will bend over backwards to find the end zone. 

Thus, the rushing burden fell on Trent Richardson, who despite playing with broken ribs was able to rush 267 times for 950 yards (3.6 yards per carry) and also made 51 catches for 367 yards and for the most part blocked very well.  

    Behind Richardson, last year Coach Pat Shurmur and his assistant Brad Childress made some very weird moves. 

    First of all, Brandon Jackson, who in 2010 rushed for over 700 yards for the Packers, has been the Forgotten Man.  Injured in 2011, he was benched in 2012 despite a good preseason.  Finally in the last game against the Steelers, he rushed 8 times for 54 yards, or 6.8 yards per carry, making the rest of us wonder where he had been the entire year. To my knowledge there was never an explanation for why Jackson wasn't being used, he just sat on the bench.  

I don't know what Brandon Jackson did to get in Shurmur's doghouse, but that's where he stayed till the last game of 2012.  

    Similary, Chris Ogbonnaya stepped in for Peyton Hillis in 2011 and performed well, getting 4.6 yards per carry,  blocking well and also catching the ball well (23 catches).  In 2012, Ogbonnaya continued to catch the ball out of the backfield but was not allowed to run the ball, getting only 8 rushing attempts for the entire YEAR.

So what's wrong with Chris Ogbonnaya that the Browns don't want to play him?

    The main backup in 2012 was Montario Hardesty, with a mediocre 3.5 yards per carry for his career.  Montario dropped an incredible number of passes in 2011, so much so that they quit throwing to him altogether in 2012.  He is also not known for his blocking ability.  What he did reasonably well was to run the ball between the tackles, but he did not help the team blocking or catching passes.  He also seems to be a hard worker, and perhaps he can correct those problems and become a good backup for Richardson.  But if he does not improve, my opinion is that Ogbonnaya and Jackson are both better overall players.  I think the Browns coaching staff may have felt the need to play Hardesty in order to placate former GM Tom Heckert who foolishly gave up three draft picks to get Hardesty.    If you give up three draft picks, the guy should be a starter, but in reality the Browns are hoping he can develop into a decent backup.  

Montario Hardesty ran well at times last year, but didn't catch the ball and didn't block well.  He has the speed size and works hard, so maybe he'll improve.

Dion Lewis is a speed back, picked up from Philadelphia in the off-season.  The Browns may try him in third down situations.  

    It also bears mention that between Richardson and Hardesty, the Browns under the direction of Tom Heckert gave up seven draft choices to get the two backs (1, 3, 4, 4, 4, 7, 7).  This is simply an unbelievable outlay to get one good regular (third best rookie running back of 2012) and a marginal backup.  
   At fullback, Owen Marecic is still number one on the depth chart.  He struggled running the ball, catching it and in blocking, and many fans wonder why the Browns cut Lawrence Vickers, a stud blocker.  I think the Browns may try to play a tight end at fullback or perhaps use a tight end at the h-back position.  Or perhaps Marecic will improve enough to re-establish himself as a starter.  

Owen Marecic is the incumbent starting fullback for the Browns.  The Browns did not draft a challenger for Owen, but did pick up a few extra tight ends, some of whom are good blockers.      

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Opinion: Haslam May Have to Sell the Browns

No doubt Browns fans are reassured to know that Jimmy Haslam knew nothing about irregularities at Pilot Flying J, and has no intention of selling the Cleveland Browns to Los Angeles investors.  

    Pilot Flying J, the corporation that provides the bucks that feeds the Browns ownership, may be having some financial problems, and to this observer it looks like there is a substantial possibility that another ownership change may be in the works in a year or so.  This may not be a bad thing, as there is little evidence that the current ownership has the interests of the city of Cleveland at heart.  

    To make a long story short, Pilot Flying J is spread thin because of the merger between Pilot and Flying J, revenues are down because of changes in the trucking industry; and Pilot Flying J is having to pay back the money it withheld, while simultaneously the company is being sued for its undershorts.  And all this after diverting more than a billion dollars out of the company to buy the Browns. 

      Even before the scandal hit, Pilot Corporation took on 1.8 billion in debt to buy out and merge with Flying J in 2011, and then the company paid out an additional 1.7 billion in dividends so that Haslam would have enough money to buy the Browns (the family owns 59% of the company, so that is why they had to withdraw $1.7 billion in order to carry out the transaction for the Browns at about a billion). 
The Wall Street Journal article linked below provides a most concise summary of the problems of Pilot Flying J. 


     This is a much more technical analysis than the normal stuff we get from the sports news, imho.  Note especially that old business models may be breaking down, as trucking companies are using new software to figure out where to buy the cheapest fuel, which is reducing margins in the entire industry.  So in other words Pilot Flying J is trying to expand at a time when the rest of the industry is cutting back. 

    And oh by the way the company is being sued by a dozen customers even as Pilot pays back the money that they owe. I'm not sure how much money they owe, but according to the affadavit on file, one of the customers was short changed by some six million dollars, and there are hundreds of customers involved.  So it could well be over a hundred million dollars, with interest, and all this before the lawsuits figure in.  That comes out of profit, not revenues.  Meantime they are no doubt losing other customers on top of that, and there is the very real threat of criminal charges against Haslam and other top brass. One might also wonder whether the company will be able to borrow money while it is threatened by lawsuits and a federal case.  Translation: this company is getting its ass kicked. 

    Perhaps that is part of the reason that the Browns did not add as much payroll as some of us expected. They may be short of operating cash right now, and it may get worse as the combined problems of reduced margins and legal difficulties cut deeply into the profit margin.   

    Hence Haslam may have to sell the Browns or risk losing control of Pilot Flying J.

     What's not mentioned in the WSJ article is that Haslam misled the NFL into believing that he would retire from Pilot Flying J and become a full time resident of Cleveland to enjoy being a resident owner. The NFL definitely prefers resident owners rather than persons with no connection to the city in which the team is based (i.e., the Knoxville-based Haslam family and the Cleveland Browns). In any case, after a few months Haslam decided to un-retire, and fellow UT alum John Compton graciously decided to step aside. Isn't that convenient?   I don't think the other owners are going to overlook the fact that the Browns wound up with a non-resident owner, and the little charade about retiring and moving to Cleveland will not go un-noticed.  

Haslam is a resident of Knoxville Tennessee and used to proclaim that he was 1000% loyal to the Steelers. Yet few Browns fans question his commitment to the City of Cleveland.  Go figure.   

     In the past I have pointed out that  Haslam's management team is well equipped to support a megastadium building effort. The company president is Alec Scheiner, who oversaw the building of the Cowboys megastadium for Jerry Jones. Now why, pray tell, do the Browns need a megastadium building expert as their team President? Well, the NFL has publicly endorsed the idea of one of its teams moving to Los Angeles as soon as a stadium deal is made.     

Farmers' Field in Los Angeles will be a fabulous megastadium,  similar to the type that Browns Alec Scheiner helped build in Arlington Texas for Jerry Jones.  What an amazing coincidence that the Browns have an expert in Megastadium building.
     GM Mike Lombardi has been through a move before, when Art Modell's Browns moved to Baltimore. 

      Of course, Haslam has too much integrity and too much of a personal investment in the city of Cleveland to ever consider anything like that, right? He's our friend, right?  

    Uh, right.  

    I am sure that my fellow Cleveland fans will proudly bring up the fact that the city has a lease with the team!  And they have lawyers to make the lease foolproof!  In response, let me just offer the opinion that if Haslam's legal team can keep him out of jail over the problems of Pilot Flying J, prematurely breaking a lease agreement should be no problem at all.

     Oddly, many Browns fans still love Haslam, believing he has done nothing wrong and totally taking him at his word that he was all set to move to Cleveland, but he just missed the excitement of Pilot Flying J. Surely the lawyers will get him off the hook, and then he can get back to the business of investing millions of new dollars into building the team.  To Browns fans, Haslam is kind of like Santa Claus, but instead of bring toys for good little boys and girls, he buys free agents for good little Browns Backers all over the world.

Is Jimmy Haslam the answer to the prayers of Browns fans?

     In my opinion,  LA probably is not going to want to deal with Haslam now that he is radioactive, so if there is an attempt to move it will involve the next ownership group, not this one.  With any luck, some team like Jacksonville or St Louis will make the move before the Browns can.   But if the Browns manage to stay in Cleveland it will be despite Haslam, not because of him.