Our man in the US - Wild Card weekend

The first trailer for the movie Draft Day was released last Monday. It features Kevin Costner as the embattled general manager of the Cleveland Browns, wheeling and dealing his way through a series of trades (stopping only to bicker with the team’s head coach and flirt with Jennifer Garner) in a bid to obtain the first overall pick. One imagines that the film will end on a triumphant note, with Costner landing the player who will save his franchise.

If only it were truly that easy. Since the Browns were re-established in 1999, they have twice picked first in the draft. The players they chose, quarterback Tim Couch and defensive lineman Courtney Brown, each bombed out of the league within six years. They did, admittedly, help steer Cleveland into the playoffs in 2002 – the team’s only postseason appearance in the last 15 years – but even then failed to make it past the Wildcard Round. Couch’s passer rating that year was a paltry 76.8; Brown contributed just two sacks all season.

The truth is that there are no sure things on a real-life draft day. Or if there are, then no team has yet worked out a perfect method for identifying them. Every year, high picks all over the league flame out, whether because of off-field distractions, difficulties adjusting to their new surroundings or simply insufficient athletic ability. Even the very best talent evaluators have plenty of duds in their back catalogue.

Cleveland have done a mostly respectable job with their first-round picks over the last few years. Center Alex Mack and cornerback Joe Haden, selected in 2009 and 2010 respectively, have each been named to the Pro Bowl this year, while 2011 selection Phil Taylor is a full-time starter at defensive tackle. Running back Trent Richardson, taken third overall in 2012, was traded to Indianapolis in return for another first-round pick in this year’s draft – albeit a lower one.

And yet, the Browns continue to lose. Not only have they failed to return to the playoffs since 2002, but recently they have not even been getting close. Cleveland have not posted more than five wins in any of the past six seasons.

Part of that comes down to ineffective recruitment at the most important position on the field. Brady Quinn never developed into the quarterback that the Browns had envisaged after they drafted him with the 22nd pick of the 2007 draft. Brandon Weeden, selected in the same spot five years later, seems to be heading the same way.

Even more damaging to this team’s prospects, though, has been an utter lack of continuity at head coach. The Browns fired Rob Chudzinski on Sunday, less than 12 months after giving him the job in the first place. He had been the fourth person to hold the position in six years. To put such turnover in context, Cleveland’s division rivals Pittsburgh – a team that has enjoyed rather more success – have had just three head coaches since 1969.

Browns fans had hoped that things might be different under a new ownership group. After buying a majority stake in the team from Randy Lerner in late 2012, Jimmy Haslam fired the incumbent head coach Pat Shurmur and appointed Chudzinski, saying:  "We knew in our minds these are the characteristics that we wanted. I feel very confident we got the right guy."

That Haslam should lose faith so swiftly in his own appointment has been perceived in the US as a damning indictment of the owner, much more than of his head coach. “The Cleveland Browns just blamed the band for the fact that the Titanic sank,” wrote Pat McManamon on ESPN.com. In the Akron Beacon Journal, Marla Ridenour argued that this move had “illustrated the height of [the Browns’] arrogance, the cartoonish level of their dysfunction”.

Many asked whether it was even fair to blame Chudzinski for the team’s disappointing performance. Cleveland had finished 4-12, losing their last seven games, but to many outsiders this had the look of a transitional year. Injuries forced the Browns to cycle through three different quarterbacks. Richardson, the starting running back, was traded away in the middle of the season.

But the greater question for the Browns was what this would mean going forward. They have already identified several candidates to fill their head coaching vacancy, but how many people would be put off the job by seeing what happened to Chudzinski? And how seriously would the eventual appointment be taken by his own players?

During a press conference on Monday, Haslam was asked by one local news reporter to respond to a fan’s complaint that the team was in fact being run by The Three Stooges. The reference was to the owner’s relationship with CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi – both of whom he appointed after buying his share in the club.

It was an intentionally provocative question and one that drew an angry reaction even from some journalists, who considered it unprofessional. But rightly or wrongly, the nickname is likely to stick. Yet again the Browns have become a punch-line. But the fans in Cleveland are not laughing.

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Making headlines

A couple more stories that have dominated the agenda over the last seven days:

  • Peyton Manning broke the NFL’s single season passing yardage record on Sunday, throwing for 266 yards during Denver’s rout of the Oakland Raiders to give him a total of 5,477 on the year. Or did he? A post on Reddit this Monday has raised doubts about whether one of his passes in that game – a seven-yard completion to Eric Decker – actually travelled forwards after leaving the quarterback’s hands. If not, it should have been considered as a running play. And given that Manning only broke Drew Brees’s existing mark by a single yard, that would be enough to strip him of the record. The NFL is now officially reviewing the play. You can check out the images for yourself here, but suffice to say this will not be an easy call to make.
  • Kansas City’s decision to rest the majority of their starters against San Diego has been the subject of much debate, as pundits pondered whether such a move is fair on the other teams still fighting for their playoff lives (in reality, of course, this happens every year, but this conversation has likewise become an annual tradition). If the Chiefs had beaten the Chargers on Sunday, then Pittsburgh, rather than San Diego, would have claimed the AFC’s final Wildcard berth. Instead the Steelers missed out by a matter of inches, when Kansas City’s Ryan Succop sent a potential game-winning field goal just wide of the right-hand upright with seconds left in the fourth quarter.  San Diego went on to win the game in overtime. But if the Steelers were cursing the kicker at the time, then their anger has since shifted over to the officiating crew who were calling that game. The Chargers had lined up in an illegal formation to defend the kick, with seven players to one side of the center. Succop should have had the chance to make amends with a kick from five yards closer in.

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Quote of the week

“I don’t know. It’s been all year. I can’t find anyone to get in there with me” – Tom Brady confesses his angst over his ongoing struggle to get his team-mates to give him a high-five. 

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Three-and-out

• A handy flowchart to help you choose which team to support through the playoffs.

• Lance Moore gets flagged for excessive celebration while copying a comedy skit about an NFL player getting flagged for excessive celebration. Oh.

• Probably saddest picture you will ever see of the Dallas Cowboys’ mascot.