Sunday, September 29, 2013

What in the World are the Browns Doing??

Nine undrafted rookies on the roster...Trent Richardson gone, third stringer Brian Hoyer quarterbacking the this any way to run a football team?

By now, I don't think there is any other way to understand it.  The Browns have thrown in the towel on the 2013 season, and are in survival mode, trying to save as much money as possible for the future. 

  They started out with a plan to aggressively rebuild the team through free agency, signing premier free agents in linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive lineman Desmond Bryant.  But last April 15, the FBI raided the headquarters of Jimmy Haslam's main company, Pilot Flying J.  
My opinion is that by about late May the Browns' rebuilding project was put on hold for a year.   The Browns quit signing top tier free agents and in fact they started shedding payroll.  They started getting rid of highly paid but viable backups like running back Brandon Jackson and tight end Kellen Davis, replacing them with undrafted rookies.  

By now, the team is an astounding 26 million dollars under the salary cap.  This is the equivalent of two or three Pro Bowlers, or  if you prefer, about six starting-calibre NFL players.  

I think the Browns need to save money in order to cover the cash flow situation within the Haslam empire.   Pilot Flying J is probably going through a down year because of being over-extended (having bought out rival Flying J for a billion dollars only two years ago), not to mention the Browns.  As mentioned other times in The Village Elliot's Cleveland Browns blog, it is a reasonable guess that Pilot Flying J may be losing some customers after this recent fiasco, and moreover must be prepared to pay back something on the order of a hundred million dollars for illegally withheld discounts and fines.   I doubt if the banks are particularly thrilled about lending money to a company whose CEO is under the threat of a federal indictment.  

Getting rid of Trent Richardson made a big impact not only this year but in future years.  In addition, the deal makes the Browns an odds-on favorite to be in a very favorable position for the 2014 draft. The goal of management may be to draft a premier quarterback, which would make the team more attractive to prospective buyers.  The 2012 trade of four draft picks to move up one position to get Richardson now looks completely foolish if he is worth only a number one pick in 2014 (likely to be about the 25th overall if the Colts make the playoffs, versus number 3 overall for TRich).  This follows the tradition of packaging three picks for injured backup running back Montario Hardesty, plus a number one and a number two for Brady Quinn.  The Browns always approach the offseason as if they are loaded with talent and need only one or two key players to win the Super Bowl, but they always wind up with the thinnest roster in the NFL, and are usually in last place in their division.  


Currently, the Browns lead the NFL in salary cap room and it isn't even close.  They also lead the league with nine undrafted free agent rookies on the roster.  This is a young and untalented roster, and IT IS THE CHEAPEST TEAM IN THE NFL. This is not opinion, it's a fact, as measure by their being 26 million under the salary cap.

Meanwhile, the stalwart Haslam team is trying to get another 100 million dollars from the City of Cleveland in stadium improvements, and if they don't get it they may try to void their stadium lease, which would free them to move to another city.  Los Angeles is likely the first choice, but if the Jacksonville Jaguars (say) get there first, then no doubt the city will put a group of investors together to pry another team away from some other city.  My guess is that Haslam will be willing to listen.  

After all, Jimmy Haslam is  a Knoxville-based Steelers fan, a former minority owner of the Steelers.  He was approved by the NFL as the Browns new owner after he falsely promised that he would move to Cleveland to become a full-time NFL owner.  Thus far, Cleveland fans seem willing to overlook this, believing that Haslam has unswerving loyalty to Cleveland for some unknown reason.  Good luck with that, guys.  

     I predict that the Browns will continue their un-building program, and that Brandon Weeden or Jason Campbell could be offered in exchange for a low round draft pick.  This situation will continue until either Haslam is exonerated from the Pilot Flying J scandal, or else the Browns are sold.  I just hope that they can stay in Cleveland another year or two.   

Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II (left) visits with Jim, Jimmy and Dee Haslam before a game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders in Pittsburgh on Nov. 21, 2010. Jimmy Haslam became a partner in the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2008.
A former minority owner of the Steelers, Jimmy Haslam never did follow through on his promise to move to Cleveland to take over the Browns full time.  Instead his office is empty in Cleveland, but most Browns fans choose to believe he has their best interests at heart.     

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Browns Pounded into Submission by Ravens, 14-6

   It's always rough being a Browns fan.  This year, it's even more difficult.  The new Browns owner, Jimmy Bedlam III, is trying very hard to avoid going to jail, and as such it appears to this observer that the team is no longer able to finance the business of playing football. 

    Today the Browns were beat up by the Ravens.  They gave up five more sacks today, on top of six given up to the Miami Dolphins last week.  That projects to 88 sacks in a single year.  At this rate, it is only a matter of time before Brandon Weeden is injured.  Weeden actually looks pretty good to me, and being able to throw for 227 yards is pretty good, especially with this terrible offensive line.

Brandon Weeden was sacked five times, as the fragile Browns O-Line could not protect him against Baltimore.  Photo:!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/browns-ravens-football.jpg

   It's also clear to the Village Elliot that the Browns do not have the personnel to run the ball effectively.  The Browns did not obtain a fullback in the off season, instead moving Chris Ogbonnaya from halfback to fullback, where he is undersized.  However, he saves the team money compared to All-Pro Vonta Leach, who did not interest the cost conscious Browns when he was a free agent last summer.  The Browns also cut third down back Brandon Jackson in another cost savings move. And though Jordan Cameron has been very good as a receiving tight end so far,  the Browns did not obtain a pass-blocking specialist as a second tight end, and instead saved money by cutting Kellen Davis.    If the Browns had hoped to be a run-first team, they should have put together some road graders on the offensive line as well as a blocking fullback and blocking tight end, and then they might have been able to run.  However, that would have cost money. As it is, Trent Richardson is a good halfback but without a team to support a commitment to run the ball, it looks to me that they are going to have to pass the ball most of the time.   Behind Trent, the Browns are saving money by not keeping a short yardage specialist, and there is also no pass catching third down specialist either.  So the plan is for the injury prone Trent to get all the touches at running back, and then hope that he somehow stays healthy.   

   On defense, the Browns actually played rather well.  Their strength is in the front seven, while the secondary was neglected iln the off season, as the Browns saved money by cutting veterans Sheldon Brown and Usama Young, with third round draft choice Leon McFadden being the primary replacement.  

     Looking at the positives, the Browns actually lead the NFL in several categories, including sacks allowed, most dollars under the salary cap, and most undrafted free agents on the roster.

     At least all this cost savings is going to a good cause, as Browns fans everywhere are just delighted to help owner Jimmy Bedlam III save money in order to keep his company (Pilot Flying J) out of bankruptcy, while keeping himself out of jail.  

Sunday, September 8, 2013

2013 Browns: a 6-10 team?

   So how will the Browns do in 2013?  After all the moves they made (and didn't make), I think the Browns have not improved overall.  On the other hand the division is much weaker this year due to personnel losses by Pittsburgh and Baltimore, both of whom invested multi-megabucks in their quarterback.  The Bengals look awesome, having drafted well for several years running.  

     The Browns actually had the opportunity to improve their team, as they were way under the salary cap and had the opportunity to sign about half a dozen starters and several other role players.  Instead, however, they stopped rebuilding after signing linebacker Paul Kruger and lineman Desmond Bryant.  I think that operating cash became scarce due to the problems at owner Jimmy Haslam's Pilot Flying J.  In any case, the Browns cut several starters from last year, in hopes that they would be signed by other teams, thus weakening the rest of the league:  

PR/WR  Josh Cribbs               
K Phil Dawson                          
CB Sheldon Brown     
P Reggie Hodges             
DE Juqua Parker 

TE Benjamin Watson
S  Usama Young
DE Frostee Rucker
FB/TE Alex Smith  

plus 2011 starters
QB  Colt McCoy                    
LB Scott Fujita (IR)
LB Chris Gocong (IR)

and backups

RB Brandon Jackson  
S Bubba Ventrone 
LB Emmanuel Acho
QB Josh Johnson
LB Kaluka Maiava

They also signed but then cut 

TE  Kellen Davis
WR David Nelson   
RB Brandon Jackson (re-signed and cut again)    

In return the Browns obtained the following starters:

LB Paul Kruger    
DT Desmond Bryant     
K  Billy Cundiff

and backups 
RB Dion Lewis (IR)
DB Chris Owens
QB  Jason Campbell

LB Quentin Groves
TE Gary Barnidge

They also made a draft day trade for WR Davone Best.  Otherwise LB Barkevious Mingo may eventually start and CB Leon McFadden may be a nickel back this year.

Did the Browns improve themselves by letting nine starters go and replacing three via free agency, two via the draft (counting Best as starting slot receiver) and four by promoting 2012 backups?  I don't think so.  They have nine undrafted rookies on their roster this year, an incredible number.   

In particular the Browns did not add blocking support for the run game, either in the form of a blocking tight end or a true fullback.  As a consequence, talented running back Trent Richardson (who cost the Browns four draft picks in 2012) may not be as effective in the running game as he could be.

Nor did they bother to replace starters in the defensive backfield.

This year I look for quarterback Brandon Weeden to improve due to having more experience plus a better array of receiving talent overall.  But the Browns are not equipped to be a running team despite having a highly regarded halfback.  

I also think the Browns have a very talented front seven on defense, but they may be woeful in the secondary.  Probably opposing teams will use three or even four wide receivers against the Browns, who will not be able to cover them.  The Browns will get some sacks, but will give up a lot of touchdowns.

Had the Browns continued their rebuilding program and signed some true talent in the defensive backfield and added some muscle on offense, they might have contended for a wild card this year.  I was very disappointed that the Browns were not interested in signing a true fullback when opportunities presented themselves.  Instead by conserving cash they once again are very thin.  There is a big drop off if they have to start the backup players due to injuries (and there always are). 

On the other hand, the Steelers and Ravens also had to let several talented starters go.  In those cases the issue is the multimegabuck contracts given to their quarterbacks.  I look for these teams to also have losing records, making life simple for the Bengals, who are stacked with talent at every position.  Because of the overall weakness in the division, I think the Browns could get an extra win or two compared to last year.  It's not out of the question that they could make a run if they stay anomalously healthy.

But the team is not going to really improve as long as they are 30 million dollars under the salary cap and continuing to shed salary by cutting veterans.  Let's get real.  

Final AFC North Standings:

Cincinnati 12-4
Cleveland  6-10 
Baltimore  6-10
Pittsburgh  6-10

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Cleveland Browns Cut Players and Salaries

img_7225783_340.jpg (340×231)

   For some time, the Village Elliot has been trying to explain that Uncle Jimmy Haslam and the Browns may be short of operating capital. Because of the rebate scandal that hit Pilot Flying J just at the same time that they bought out rival Flying J for a billion dollars, AND they bought the Browns for a billion dollars, AND they expanded the number of new stations AND revenues are tighter than ever as truckers become more sophisticated at selecting low price sources of diesel.  Pilot Flying J has plenty of assets, but possibly not operating capital, and my guess is that the banks may not want to give them a short term loan while they are under the threat of a federal indictment.  So far, the Cleveland media (never mind the national media) has not caught on, but the fact of the matter is that the Browns halted their free agent spending before getting the defensive backfield help that they desperately need.
   Now they cut backup running back Brandon Jackson (saving $700 K) and tight end Kellen Davis (saving another $700 K), replacing both of them with undrafted rookies at the league minimum.  No attempt to sign Jonathan Dwyer, a competent free agent running back, even though the Browns are millions of dollars under the cap.  Hence the Browns are pathetically thin behind Trent Richardson, and they have not gone out to get blockers for him at fullback and tight end.   

Trent-Richardson.jpg (3468×2352)
Trent, please stay healthy!  There is no backup plan if TRich goes down.   

   Understand, it's not that Haslam and Pilot Flying J have no assets.  They have plenty of gas stations, trucks and other great assets that are worth lots of money.  But it's operating capital that is short, and to convert assets to operating capital you need a bank to help.  I don't think the banks are going to play however, realizing that company could be under a federal indictment soon. So maybe there is no operating capital available to Jimmy Haslam right now.  

   I conclude that indeed the Browns need to save cash, and thus they are shedding payroll instead of adding it as they should.  They should be signing defensive backs, a fullback, a second running back, a second tight end, a kicker and anybody else that can play football.  But the Browns are not going to spend the few million dollars that it would take to give them depth at these positions.  Likely, this means that they will not recover if some of their key players get injured. 

   If so, we may be looking at another 4 or 5 win season, despite having some real talent in the defensive front seven and in the passing offense.   But don't worry, Uncle Jimmy is going to be all right, as they have hopefully shed enough payroll to make ends meet for a while.  

banner-and-haslam.jpg (620×316)
Joe Banner and Jimmy Haslam laugh at suggestions that the team is short on operating capital.