Roda’s Report Card

By: Kenny Roda

Cincinnati Bengals  – grade (A) – As crazy as owner Mike Brown looked in not trading Carson Palmer at the beginning of the season, getting rid of his 2 best receivers in OchoCinco and Terrell Owens, letting cornerback Jonathan Joseph walk in free agency, and keeping Marvin Lewis around as head coach, the Bengals are one of the biggest surprises in the NFL this season.  The drafting of QB Andy Dalton and his play, plus the defense playing at a high level, are big reasons why the Bengals, at the half way point, are tied for 1st place in the AFC North.

Baltimore Ravens – grade (A) –  The biggest reason they get an “A” is because they finally have defeated the Steelers twice in the same season to gain the tie breaker in the division and potentially home field advantage in the playoffs.  The defense is doing what it always does and Joe Flacco may have turned the corner towards becoming a top-flight quarterback with his impressive game winning 92 yard drive at Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh Steelers – grade (B-) – Despite an older defense with a weak secondary, an average to below average offensive line and injuries on offense and defense, the Steelers have won 6 of their first 9 games which puts them right in the divisional race and the playoff race.  However with the defense and head coach blowing that Ravens game at home, allowing Baltimore to hold the tie breaking edge, the Steelers can get no higher than a “B-” grade in this mid-term report.

Cleveland Browns – grade (D-) – 1st year head coach Pat Shurmur looks overwhelmed and befuddled at times on the sidelines during a game. His “West Coast” offense, in which he is calling the plays for, is struggling mightily, being outscored 58-6 in the 1st quarter of games and is averaging under 15 points per game.  Colt McCoy seems to be regressing at QB.  The offensive line, while a little banged up has been terrible. The defense, while it has some players to build around in Joe Haden, Phil Taylor and T.J. Ward, still cannot stop the run. When your MVP at the midway point is your kicker who has made 6 field goals of 50 yards or more, your season can’t be going well.  As crazy as this may sound, this team is not as good as it’s record at (3-5).  The 3 teams they have beaten have a combined record of (3-22) this season.

Follow Kenny on Twitter @RoadmanWKNR

How did we get here?

By Bruce Hooley

I’m questioning my role in my profession today.

It’s not the first time, because the bloodlust for victory, the all-consuming quest for another championship, the raging sense of entitlement that cannibalizes anyone who questions the status quo in college athletics has bothered me for a long time.

Now it’s more than some nagging concern over whether I’m helping to perpetuate a system, despite portions I loathe. The heinous nature of the allegations at the forefront of the Penn State football scandal compel me to examine my role in glorifying a system of big-time college sports that’s twisted so horribly off center.

How did we get here? How did we bastardize college athletics into something that clouds the judgment of supposed shapers of tomorrow’s generation when the right thing to do is so clear? What pressures must the chase for one more championship inflict on the men in charge of the nation’s elite programs that their moral compasses become so skewed?

A few years back, the murder of a college basketball player at Baylor University horrified us. It couldn’t get worse, we thought. But we were wrong. Victims of child abuse die a thousand deaths, with their innocence stolen, their self-esteem crushed and their faith in those charged with protecting them forever shattered.

It is against this horrifying backdrop of multiple young boys’ lives either ruined or irreparably scarred that they will nevertheless pack 105,000 fans into Beaver Stadium this weekend for the customary revelry of Penn State football. The 40 counts of sexual abuse against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, and head coach Joe Paterno’s and university administrators’ roles in covering it up, are apparently not enough to stall the machine that churns inexorably on.

This scandal is far worse than anything that’s happened at Ohio State, Oregon, LSU, USC, Auburn, Miami, Alabama or any other elite program that’s been touched by controversy in recent years. The similarity though, is that no matter what happens, the beast must be fed. The games must be played. The cash register must continue to ring.

For far too long, far too many have foolishly gained their greatest source of self-esteem from what happens on the playing fields of college campuses across the country. Sadly, but predictably, fans of those programs previously subjected to unflattering headlines because of mistakes of their favorite school’s own creation have seized upon the Penn State fiasco as proof that, “See, we’re not that bad.”

To brandish such logic suggests a perverted embrace of what went on at Penn State. It provides a convenient prop for the weak-willed to lean on in convincing themselves that someone else is worse.

All that does is victimize the alleged victims of Jerry Sandusky one more time, as if they haven’t suffered enough.

Penn State cancelled Paterno’s press conference on Tuesday, when it should have cancelled the final home game of the season Saturday against Nebraska. It’s simply wrong to conduct business as usual when we have overwhelming evidence from the Pennsylvania Attorney General that Sandusky used Penn State football as an allure to entrap and violate the boys he preyed upon.

Knowing that, who can tailgate, sing the alma mater or stand and cheer for a touchdown like nothing happened? Penn State’s students clearly demonstrated Tuesday night, when hundreds gathered on Paterno’s lawn in a chanting, hand-clapping show of support, that they will further embarrass their school if given the platform.

They sang the raucous theme from Seven Nation Army, as if this entire ugly episode is some third-and-12 the Nittany Lions can escape with adequate pass protection and a well-placed downfield throw.

I’ve been to State College and experienced its game-day atmosphere many times. I’ve written and spoken glowingly about it, and about other similar environments in Columbus, Madison, Ann Arbor and South Bend.

I’m not sure if I can, or should, bring myself to do that with the same enthusiasm ever again. Not now that I know what the misplaced hero worship and twisted priorities that result can enable and excuse.

Email hoolz@espncleveland.com

Follow Bruce on Twitter @bhoolz

Bruce Hooley hosts The Hooligans on ESPN 850 WKNR www.espncleveland.com from 3-6 p.m. Monday-Friday

Any Given Sunday

By Munch

There were more than NINJA’s running around my head yesterday as I watched the Browns regress in their loss to Houston!  I also need to say, and this one TRULY hurts me, that I have removed the BROWNS from the “ON ANY GIVEN SUNDAY” list as of now, because they CANNOT POSSIBLY win a game!

Other thoughts from the little BROWNIE’s elf’s running around in my gourd…

* The BROWNS throw the ball on 3rd and 1. OK, in the WEST COAST OFFENSE the pass is an extension of the hand off, but why not sneak Colt? Where is our FULLBACK to lead one of the RB’s through a hole?

* The emasculation of the Browns took place on a vanilla sweep when the game was right about the 2 minute mark and the Texans had 4th and 6!  4th and 6 and they get the 1st down!  DEFENSE should be embarrassed for the whole game AND that fact!

* Colt did throw a deep ball effortlessly!  Problem?  Little NO SEPARATION!  Greg knew it too.

* What about the Browns falling prey to stuff arms?  CHOP IT AWAY LIKE YOU WERE BREAKING A TWO B Y FOUR and you will not see it again…and perhaps the person using it!

* COLTS HATAS…just a thought for you…He may not be around long when he gets hit with CLEAN, RUNNING START SHOTS frequently and sacked by not one, but 2, 3 even 4 opponents!

What can cure this regression?  WIN SUNDAY as the Rams come to town!  C’mon Shurmur…BEAT YOUR OLD TEAM!

High School Playoffs: An Escape

By: Kenny Roda

If you’re tired of wasting you’re money and time watching the crappy Browns, then do yourself a favor and go out this Friday or Saturday night and watch some high school football playoff action.  Kids playing at a high level, for the love of the game.

There are some great second round match ups all over the state.  The “Holy War” – Part 2, as defending division 1 state champ, St. Ed’s looks to avenge that earlier season loss to 10-time state champs St. Ignatius.

How about the rematch in division 1 between #1 ranked Mentor and 5th ranked Solon?  The Comets hoping for a little payback.

Hudson taking on one of the areas top rushers in Jack Snowball and the Wadsworth Grizzlies.  Those are just three of the many great games that will take place on high school fields this coming weekend.  For some kids, it will be the last football game they ever play in.  For others, a chance to chase that dream of a state title.

The purity of high school football during playoff time is a thing of beauty.

Emotions will be flying high and low with 16, 17 and 18 year old kids who have been working hard, sweating and bleeding since the hot 2-a-days of summer practice, and all for the love of the game.

So quit wasting your Sunday afternoons and take a break from that horrific offense of the Cleveland Browns. Go enjoy some entertaining football for a change, as teenagers play their hearts out on the high school gridiron for the right to see their name in the paper, hear the name announced over the PA system, get a kiss from their girlfriend after the game and live to play another week, as they chase that dream of being state champs!

It sure as hell is a lot more fun than watching the Cleveland Browns play!

First Edition: Free Agent Target List

By: T.J. Zuppe

Indians general manager Chris Antonetti has already laid the foundation for the 2011-2012 offseason in Cleveland. On top of making a decision to decline the option on outfielder Grady Sizemore and pick up the option on pitcher Fausto Carmona, the team has already landed veteran starting pitcher Derek Lowe in a trade with the Braves.

While it is probably true that the team will only find something of impact in another trade or two, the team could stand to improve several areas by supplementing a few free-agents from the available talent pool.

Players such as first basemen Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and left-handed pitcher C.J. Wilson lead the class and will be hitting major paydays in this offseason. While the destination of those players is unlikely to be the north coast in Cleveland, it should not stop the front office from targeting some players that could really assist the club in reaching the next level, playing in October.

The following list is a group the Tribe should be putting in their cross-hairs, along with some commentary on why they make (or do not make) sense. Just with any kid at Christmas, expect several revisions to the wish list as free-agency plays out.

First baseman Carlos Pena

Carlos Pena – 1B – Chicago Cubs

It seems the writing is on the wall for incumbent Matt LaPorta. The team is looking for a significant upgrade at first. Pena’s average and strike out rate is always an issue, but his power and run production is not (28 HR – 80 RBI). He still gets on base and plays a very solid defense. With Cleveland’s abundance of ground ball pitchers, improving the glove work should be a large part of any equation. I would consider him near the top of the wish list.

Michael Cuddyer – 1B/OF – Minnesota Twins

The biggest positive for Cuddyer is the side of the plate he hits from – the right. He would provide a calming veteran presence in the clubhouse and a smart professional approach to the lineup. However, Cuddyer is probably better suited for the role of designated hitter at this point in his career.

Cody Ross – OF – San Francisco Giants

If you want to jump on him, now is the time. After lifting the Giants to a World Series championship in 2010, the right-handed hitter’s numbers hit the decline in a full year in the Giants ballpark. He is an above average defender in left field, and has displayed 15-20 home run power. I expect Ross to bounce back in 2012 and it would not be a bad thing to watch him do it in an Indians uniform.

Aramis Ramirez – 3B – Chicago Cubs

Even into the later stages of his career, the right-handed hitting Ramirez is still a feared stick. However, he stands to get a big contract on the open-market, and it would probably only make sense for the Tribe if Ramirez was moved long-term to first. Ramirez may say thanks, but no thanks to that offer. At the end of the day, he stands to make too much from a squad with money burning a hole in their pocket.

Coco Crisp – OF – Oakland A’s

That is right; the former Indians outfielder could certainly help his old team in several ways. He has lost a step in speed and with his glove, but he could provide some very good depth in the outfield. He would fill the role of a fringe starter in Cleveland but the club learned a valuable lesson last season in injuries. Getting some healthy backups and options is extremely important.

David DeJesus – OF – Oakland A’s

Probably the best example of a supplemental addition. DeJesus has much more upside than Crisp, and could be a perfect reclamation project for the Indians to pursue. At one time extremely dynamic, had an absolutely awful year in Oakland. Could be more of an everyday player, and would flourish in a platoon role. At the right price, definitely worth a shot. He fits the mold of a quiet signing that pays big dividends later.

Outfielder Josh Willingham

Josh Willingham – OF – Oakland A’s

Did I really just list the entire Athletics outfield? Yes, it happened. The only reason Willingham probably does not work in Cleveland is the amount of interest surrounding him. His power numbers were respectable in an awful park, but the average and on-base percentage dipped in 2011. More than likely, Willingham will be overpaid by a desperate organization. He is good, but not worthy of breaking the bank.

Jason Kubel – OF / DH – Minnesota Twins

Kubel probably earned himself some cash with a respectable average and solid power last year. However, it is still tough to count on the injury prone left-handed hitter in an everyday role. His defense is suspect and makes more sense in a platoon / bench role. He would provide an upgrade and the Indians did put a claim in on him in August.

Other Possibilities: Magglio Ordonez – OF – Detroit Tigers, Ryan Ludwick – OF – Pittsburgh Pirates, Reed Johnson – OF – Chicago Cubs

There are even a few more players the Tribe should kick the tires on before making any final decisions.

Keep in mind, this year’s class is not abundantly full of “difference-making” talent. The Indians should supplement free agency with trades, not simply rely on it.

Would a Pujols or Fielder signing win the press conference? Absolutely – but there is a degree or realism that must be realized.

As is usually the case with free-agency, the majority of signings somehow come back to get you. Spending just to spend on the open market will only put future financial handcuffs on the team.

Spending wisely – as always – will be the name of the game.

Anyone you think I should add? Who did I leave out? Be sure to shoot me your suggestions on Twitter!

Follow TJ on Twitter @TJZuppe

Down Goes Hillis

By Will Burge

A hand off to the right side of the line is such a simple play. It happens 25 times in every viewable portion of practice. 99.9% of the time it is not worth paying attention. Friday was different.

Hillis took the handoff and glided through the hole on the right side. He made it about three yards and then something was obviously wrong.

He went from a hunched, forceful running position to an upright stance in a split second. Hillis took the football and threw it twenty yards as he began to limp towards the sideline. Once he got near the sideline he ripped off his helmet and slammed it to the ground. A move that usually is reserved for a scoring celebration was now a release of frustration and a declaration of pain.

As Hillis was consoled by trainers and eventually helped off the field, any doubt in my mind of the validity of his hamstring injury went out the window. If he was faking, he is in the wrong line of work. Instead of working for a rushing title he should be working towards an Oscar.

Coach Pat Shurmur confirmed to the media immediately following practice that Peyton did re-aggravate the hamstring injury which has kept him out for two straight weeks. He will have an MRI this afternoon.

In a game where the Browns so desperately needed their 1,200 yard rusher, they will now turn to Chris Ogbonnaya. In his career, he has 108 yards on 28 carries. Hillis has six games of 100+ yards. Hillis is on the cover of Madden while Ogbonnaya was on the Houston practice squad two weeks ago.

How ironic that he will get his first career start against the team where he couldn’t even crack the roster just 14 days ago.

Montario Hardesty told the media after practice that he is still working to rehab his calf injury. He was wearing a huge boot on his right leg while doing the interview. Hardesty said there is no timetable for his return.

With both Hillis and Hardesty out for the foreseeable future, the season hangs in the balance for the Browns over the next three weeks. It is tough to imagine a win on the road at Houston, but they have two very winnable home games after that.

St. Louis and Jacksonville are not only both bad football teams but could be the turning point of this season. If the Browns win those games they will be at .500 after 10 games and still in the playoff hunt. If they lose them they could be four games below .500 with the season spiraling downward.

The health at the running back position could decide that fate.

Follow Will Burge on twitter @WillBurge

 

The Luke Fickell Dilemma

By Bruce Hooley

The more Ohio State wins, the worse it gets for OSU athletic director Gene Smith.

Three weeks ago, Smith kept an appropriately sad face while the Buckeyes’ football team blew a 21-second half lead at Nebraska in falling to 0-2 in the Big Ten and 3-3 overall.

Games against unbeaten Illinois on the road and unbeaten Wisconsin in Columbus awaited.

Smith, if competent at all, (debatable, given the last 10 months) was working the phones communicating through back channels with search firms, agents and friends of possible successors for Luke Fickell as OSU’s head coach.

If not Urban Meyer, then Chris Petersen and Gary Patterson had to grab Smith’s attention. Second-tier candidates like Kevin Sumlin, Mel Tucker and Mike Riley also looked better than Fickell, who appeared en route to a photo finish for even a Lil Ceasar’s Pizza Bowl berth.

But a mildly-surprising win at Illinois and a borderline-shocking win over Wisconsin now has OSU on track for a 9-3 finish, a possible berth in inaugural Big Ten title game and maybe a trip to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

So Gene Smith squirms.

He’ll have a decision to make soon on whether to sign Fickell for 2012 and beyond or fire the former Buckeye player and long-time assistant coach to name Meyer or someone else as OSU’s next coach. A season of five or six losses would have made Smith’s decision easy. But a winning streak of six or seven games to end the regular season, and a berth in or even a victory at a BCS bowl, puts the pressure on Smith no matter what he decides.

Fickell will engender enormous good will should he right the Buckeyes after numerous suspensions and off-field distractions dominated the headlines throughout the preseason and the first month. He comes off as genuine, as a young guy working hard to hold onto his dream job. Everyone can identify with that and embrace it, so Fickell is an easy guy to root for.

Smith hasn’t made many, or perhaps even any, good decisions since the tattoo scandal surfaced in December. He’s stonewalled or come off as clueless at every turn. Given his abysmal job performance, it’s hard to believe he’ll make a smart decision on anything of consequence.

The decision here centers on whether Fickell is OSU’s best chance to achieve its potential as a football program over the next 5-to-10 years. Coaches with proven track records have answered that question, although coaching at Ohio State is a unique job with singular challenges unlike most places.

Meyer, as a former OSU assistant, wouldn’t be awed by the challenge. Petersen, Patterson and just about everyone else would get their eyes opened by the provincial nature of life in the Buckeye meat grinder. That’s not to say they couldn’t do the job, or that they aren’t better-prepared than Fickell. But rest assured, it would be an eye-opener for most guys given the way OSU zealots cannibalize their own.

Fickell was clearly over his skis in the losses at Miami and Nebraska, and my hunch is he’d still have that label if Braxton Miller’s Hail Mary had been intercepted before the clock struck midnight on Saturday. Right now, he hasn’t demonstrated nearly enough to take the training wheels off and give him the job permanently.

Meyer, if healthy, will always be the best long-term choice, provided his health is solid and his commitment firm. Introducing him in short order after the regular-season finale against Michigan loomed as the likeliest scenario until OSU’s current winning streak. But now, the more the Buckeyes win, the harder it gets for Smith to make any move until OSU plays its bowl game.

That will set Ohio State’s recruiting back at least a month until it names a new coach.

Even if that new coach is the coach who has the job right now.

 

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