Sunday, September 14, 2008

A fulcrum game for a franchise

By Rick Morris

Few NFL games in September hold the promise of helping to shape an organization's future. According to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, Oakland coach Lane Kiffin will be dirt-canned tomorrow. But that might not even be dependent on the outcome of today's Kansas City game (although, it sure would be funny to see Al Davis have to justify the move if the team could somehow pull off the big upset today), and it won't matter much anyway. While Kiffin is a promising young coach, that franchise is so hostage to the old days that the downward spiral (interrupted only by the "Chucky Days" of the late '90s and early '00s) will continue anyway.

No, I speak of tonight's Browns-Steelers game in terms of the future of the organization being at stake. Cleveland faces one of the toughest schedules in the NFL this year -- not as difficult as Pittsburgh's, but the Steelers are an established power facing down those teams -- and they knew coming in that they had a brutal 1-2 punch at the outset with Dallas and Pittsburgh before facing two extremely winnable games in Baltimore and Cincinnati. The Browns were so completely decimated by Dallas last week -- never, ever, has a 28-10 score so wildly misrepresented the scale of an arse-whipping -- that they come into the Pittsburgh game on an even lower ebb than thought imaginable. And for a team that has lost nine straight to their hated arch-rivals (the game before that having been a trouncing orchestrated by the bane of ignorant Browns fans everywhere, Tim Couch), low confidence was already a given -- even before the injury rash that has continued to spread.

Now, the blowout in last season's opener -- ironically, against Pittsburgh -- shows the limited capacity for drawing long-term conclusions off a single game inasmuch as the Browns won 2/3 of their remaining games, albeit against a sub-CFL level schedule. But the team has to rebound tonight to have a chance against the Ravens and Bengals the next two weeks. President Paul Belfi agrees with Browns GM Phil Savage that this game is a must-win for Cleveland. I disagree. But it's certainly a "must keep it close" game.

The Browns must snap the string of blowouts they have suffered at home to Pittsburgh in recent years, games that leave only overall-wearers reeking of Mad Dog and cigarette smoke waving their Terrible Towels in the stands by the fourth quarter. Much as the 2008 season must be a consolidation year building towards a legitimate playoff run in 2009 if the team is to be taken seriously in the NFL, tonight's game must be a consolidation game for the next two weeks. If the Browns cannot beat Baltimore and Cincinnati, they will be eaten alive by the remaining schedule, and they cannot hope to win those games if they are destroyed tonight.

Now, by Savage turning up the heat for tonight's game, he is signaling his awareness of the reality that the Savage-Crennel team cannot indefinitely remain a united front if the franchise does not become a winner. Sooner or later, at some point, a GM or coach must be held accountable for a team's performance: the GM if the talent is insufficient or the coach if the team underachieves. I believe firmly that the latter will be the case if push comes to shove; while my friend Ken Becks of Gridiron Evaluations rightly points out that this team's depth is not what it should be four years into this administration, the starting lineup (when healthy) has few definable holes on either side of the ball. Some of Savage's draft picks have found their way into Romeo Crennel's doghouse over time (hello, Travis Wilson!), which puts even more of an impetus on the head coach to prove that he has other players on the roster worthy of playing time. So Romeo Crennel is offficially "on the clock" if the team gets blown out tonight.

If the team gets boatraced tonight, they'll need a split of the next two games at a bare minimum for Crennel to hang on, but the "death watch" will be in full effect. With a Monday night showdown against the defending Super Bowl Champion Giants up after that, Crennel could take on the "Butch Davis stench of death circa late 2004" at that time. Only a short week would stop him from being fired after a Giants blowout if the unraveling proceeds as it might -- and again, he won't even make it to the Giants game if the team is 0-4. With Washington and Jacksonville up next, the Crennel era in Cleveland looks almost certain to be coming to an end by October if the team is humiliated tonight. So indeed, the need to keep tonight's nationally televised game close makes it a fulcrum game for one of the league's most storied franchises. Suffer a beatdown tonight and Romeo's going to go home to a house where fans will have already tacked up a "For Sale" sign.

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