Well, that didn’t take long. Three games into the 2015 schedule and the Browns season is swirling in controversy. And to absolutely no one’s surprise, the biggest controversy seems focused on the quarterback position. Check that: … seems focused on the quarterback personalities. I make that distinction because there is precious little real football talk on the subject.
I have to laugh. The business of controversy — and it is a business — has overtaken the news business. No one is content to report the objective facts about anything, especially about a game of football, because apparently there are no objective facts. As is said of beauty, even the so-called facts are in the eye of the beholder. And if there are no facts, aren’t we all free to opine, in an unfettered arena of public argument?
Controversies are a kind of prolonged public debate. They’re often divisive and heated and can lead to tension and ill will. Of course, there are controversial subjects that carry enough moral weight to warrant a prolonged public discussion. Probably the most significant controversy in our history (and, as it turned out, the most self-destructive) was over whether our nation should allow human slavery. However, the tension, ill will, and divisiveness over who should quarterback the local football team does not measure up and, personally, I choose not to take sides in the debate because I think it is, start to finish, a manufactured and manipulated subject.
Here’s how I see it:
A) First, there is the matter of our own lack of qualifications. While I think I know quite a lot about the sport, about the position and about what goes into the decision-making process, compared to those who have worked at this for a living at the highest levels, I cannot bring myself to believe I know anywhere near enough to hold more than a superficial, uneducated opinion.
For spectators, even the serious ones, there is a limit to what we have access to. If we were to watch a game at the stadium — even from the best seats on the 50-yard line — we cannot absorb it all in one viewing. And even if we watch a replay of the game, even to invest the time studying certain plays repeatedly at different speeds, it seems clear that we’re not interpreting the outward evidence in the same way. In fact, that seems to be the case even with the so-called experts.
Case in point: I watched the Browns-Raiders game through the time machine of the digital video recorder. I already knew how it ended because, driving home from a trip to Canada this past weekend, I listened to most of the Browns live radio broadcast. Interesting thing, however, about that radio broadcast. The two guys calling the game, Jim Donovan and Doug Dieken, while obviously watching the same game, did not seem in total agreement as to what was happening on the field. Dieken, in several of his comments, felt compelled to clarify, or correct, what Donovan was saying. Now, Jim Donovan, it must be said, is in the camp of wanting to see Johnny Manziel take over for Josh McCown after that one win over the Tennessee Titans. Doug Dieken is more circumspect and several times after Donovan called an incomplete pass in, shall we say, a somewhat critical tone of voice, Dieken clarified the call with something like, “Well, he was hit as he was throwing …”
Donovan’s lack of neutrality on the subject and his brand of play-by-play announcing is unlike earlier times when announcers kept their biases under wraps. An earlier Browns announcer, Gib Shanley, actually made news with a snarky comment in the 1960s, long before snarky was a word. As the Browns crossed the field on the way to the locker room at halftime, Shanley said, “And that’s the first time the Browns have crossed midfield this afternoon.” Paul Brown later made sure that indiscretion was not repeated.
Donovan, however, seems to revel in some of his calls being used as promotional snippets in the cause of controversy because his play-by-play editorializing has been on the increase for years. “Hoyer, back to throw … he fires … I don’t know who that was to … it was way over everyone …” But such a style causes the actual performance of play-by-play announcing to suffer, i.e., the dispensation of facts. With Donovan, far too often he simply fails to paint a timely word picture. Please, Jim, take the advice of Herb Score. First and foremost, give us the obvious facts, timely and in the correct sequence. Save the opinions for later.
In those cases when a pass is incomplete or intercepted, even announcers don’t necessarily know exactly what went wrong with the play. Did the receiver run the route incorrectly or was it just a bad throw? What we do know is that the coaches are not about to make their video analysis a public event. They’re not going to criticize their players for specific mistakes. And that’s as it should be.
B) Another red flag about this topic concerns something called Benford’s law of controversy, which states that “Passion is inversely proportional to the amount of real (true) information available.” In other words, with this particular issue, the less there is of factual information about the criteria for deciding who should play quarterback, the more passionate are the disputants.
The scary part of such ‘passion’ is the absolute assuredness some critics have as to what would result if player X were to be replaced by player Y … as if it is a self-evident fact. Hasn’t it been less than a year since we went through this during last year’s quarterback controversy when player Y was, well, something of a disappointment? And yet here you are, one brief human gestation period later, pregnant with cocksureness about what would happen this time around?
In fact, who, besides the coaches, has witnessed the full range of the players’ activities (in the classroom, in the locker room, on the practice field and during live games) that would qualify one to offer an actual educated opinion on the subject?
Passion, however, is a polite way of describing the many over-the-top, unreasonable opinions being offered in support of each position. In such cases it is the ‘passionate’ discourse which seems the most suspicious and the most difficult to take seriously. An example: One strongly held opinion that has resurfaced from last year is that the Browns should play Manziel this year so the team knows what it has for the future. Really? Says who? This idea glaringly fails to acknowledge the primary responsibilities of the general manager and coaches … to acquire and play the best team possible. Isn’t that what scouting, training camps, classroom work and practices are for? Or is there a subtler suggestion at work here … that fans should have the opportunity to see what they don’t otherwise have access to … that fans should be the judges?
Another oft-heard complaint is far from subtle and takes the form of a threat. That “there are thousands of fans wanting Manziel to play and if the Browns don’t watch themselves they’ll have a riot on their hands.” Yes, that was said on the public airwaves recently. In the world of geopolitics, words like that would be seen as extremism. In the far too compartmentalized world of sports, however, we are loathe to confront the barracuda in the room.
Then there’s another kind of threat, less violent but more humorous: “I haven’t missed a game in 25 years, but, you know what? I don’t care anymore. I just don’t care. I’m not gonna let this team ruin my weekends anymore …” Of course, this is an embarrassing admission, dear neighbor, that not only have you been allowing a football team to ruin your weekends for many years, but you’re calling sports talk radio to announce it. Methinks thou dost protest too much … and too publicly.
C) During the infamous Watergate scandal that ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, an inside source nicknamed Deep Throat whispered to reporter, Bob Woodward, “Follow the money.” There are a multitude of mysteries that can be unraveled by following this advice. Legal authorities and news organizations know that following the money is an almost sure-fire method of getting to the bottom of a crime, a story, or a controversy. But when the media itself is motivated more by their own potential financial gains than by the desire to get the story right, more is demanded of our personal responsibility.
Getting to the bottom of a controversial story about an NFL team is a case in point. The NFL owns a gargantuan slice of the entertainment business. Stadium sellouts, through-the-roof TV ratings, and side deals that reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars are standard occurrences. In fact, the NFL is so successful that even terrible teams continue to make huge profits, so in a way the usual rules of success and failure in business don’t apply to the NFL.
Suffice it to say, the NFL is the most lucrative sports league in the world, which draws a large contingent of individuals who are engaged in a continual all-out blitz to take financial advantage of the seemingly insatiable appetite for the game. Sometimes the reporting on the game is entertaining and elucidating, but often not. Sometimes it aims to lift the level of conversation, but too often it aims at the lowest common denominator, attempting to inflame the passions with non-story stories.
It’s entirely possible, of course, that the heated debates and ill will are viewed as “all in good fun” and a welcome part of the entertainment complex that is the world of professional sports. Try as I might, I just don’t see it that way.
In the TV series Friday Night Lights (2006-2011), a fictional story about the culture of high school football in Texas, the promising young coach, Eric Taylor, played by Kyle Chandler, is repeatedly told (warned) that W’s are all that matter to their town and that it will accept nothing less than a state championship as the measure of their success. “It’s all we’ve got in this town.” That’s the crux of the problem in the fictional town of Dillon, Texas … and in real towns and cities across America, the belief that that’s all we’ve got.
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There are some aspects of the Browns-Raiders game last Sunday worth mentioning again. Let’s see to what extent they approach being objective facts:
- As the game began, Josh McCown (and/or his chemistry with his receivers) looked rusty. Whether he was simply inaccurate or out of sync with his receivers, I don’t know, but as the game progressed McCown seemed to work off the rust and actually made some impressive throws, some into very tight coverage.
- The Raiders put pressure on McCown on almost every passing play. The Browns, on the other hand, put almost no pressure on Derek Carr. I would have been happy had the Browns drafted Carr but it’s still difficult for me to compare QBs in a vacuum. Carr wasn’t even being hurried and that, more than anything, made him successful against the Browns.
- In years past, even last year, the Browns offense, when confronted with 3rd and long seemed far too content to throw underneath. But on Sunday against the Raiders McCown converted on so many third-and-longs I was beginning to think DeFilippo was discovering something about his passing game. On a 3rd and 6, McCown hit Hartline for a 15-yard gain. On a third-and-14, he hit Barnidge for 40 yards. On a third-and-10, he hit Barnidge for 15 yards, and on a third-and-17, he hit Hartline for 41 yards. Positive signs amongst lots of negatives.
- DeFilippo may also have discovered something more about his offense last Sunday. In the second half against the Raiders, the Browns offense was looking almost unstoppable in spite of the pressure on McCown and in spite of their employing almost no running game. Almost no running game! Sure, the Browns need to be able to run the ball, but why make your running plays predictable? If your opponent wants to overload the front against the run, that should turn into their problem, not yours. It will be interesting to see how this develops in the coming weeks.
- The fumble of the fourth-quarter punt by Travis Benjamin, more than any other single play, may have decided the game. Instead of the Browns getting the ball on their own 43-yard line with over four minutes remaining, they got the ball on their own 2-yard line with 2:26 remaining. Nevertheless, the Browns drove 71 yards to the Oakland 29, then McCown was sacked with 0:43 remaining. Then the interception with Duke Johnson wide open as the outlet receiver. Maybe underneath would have been a good thing right there. Ouch and ouch once again.
As for quarterback controversies, Johnny Manziel, himself, can put this so-called dissension controversy to rest in 30 seconds. He can say, “Sure, I want to contribute, but I’m doing that in the role that is assigned to me. I support Coach Pettine and I support Josh. And by the way, I would prefer to speak for myself and I’d prefer for teammates and fans to avoid saying anything that would create a rift or controversy. And that’s all I’m gonna say on the subject.”
So, where are we after a three-game (loss-win-loss) start? Three games of a 16-game season is the equivalent of 30 games of the 162-game major league baseball season, so Browns fans think they have a pretty good idea where the team is headed. But Tito Francona would never give up in early May and, naturally, Mike Pettine is not about to give up on the 2015 campaign and turn it into a rebuilding, developmental season. That was never gonna happen.
Disappointing start to the season? Sure it is, but why don’t we take some advice from Mike Pettine. Why don’t we just work at controlling what we can control? The Cleveland Browns have been providing its fans with regular, ongoing healthy reminders that it is risky, at best, to rely on them as the one and only source of weekend entertainment. Get a life, they seem to say each Sunday. Okay, I say, we can do that!