April 20, 2014

On Character and the Future of Cleveland Teams

Over the course of the last few seasons of loss-littered sport within the city of Cleveland, the discussion of character, specific to those on the field of play, has been bantered about.

Case in point: The infamous 2009 NFL Draft wherein Eric Mangini opted for Alex Mack and Brian Robiskie over Rey Maualuga, and David Veikune over everyone else eligible for said draft, mostly due to their character. Motor, to be sure, but also character.  Or when, following the departure of one LeBron James, the Cavaliers were left in the hands of general manager Chris Grant, he of the Steve Nash, Grant Hill and Boris Diaw additions in Phoenix as well as the Kyrie Irving, Omri Casspi and Tristan Thompson additions in Cleveland. Brandon Phillips becomes a clubhouse cancer? His Gold Glove gets sent down 71-South.

The talk of “choir boys” or “convicts” typically represent the two character-based teams with the black and white argument leaving little room for the greys of the world. Up until they added Andy Dalton and AJ Green into the mix, the Cincinnati Bengals were notorious for their willingness to ignore off-field issues; Pacman Jones is the posterboy for such aggregious decisions. Same can recently be said for the New York Jets where, up until this past week, Rex Ryan’s willingness to place reward firmly ahead of risk was lauded and praised and writ large.  At least until the win-fueld music stopped and his Green and White cabal of underachievers are left standing, shoulders slouched and knees wrapped in ice, without a chair.

Certainly, the fact that this latest cacophony of chaos surrounding Mark Sanchez and Santonio Holmes is magnified due to the home market and characters involved.  But it should also serve as a case study for what happens when a few combustible ingredients are added into the cauldron. Perhaps ‘Tone’s air travel iPod incident is a drop in the bucket compared to other NFL “crimes,” but it’s not far removed from the character traits of someone who may not be the best-suited for things not going his or her way.

If Eric Mangini did anything right during either of his tenures as head football coach within the NFL, it was instilling a foundation of hard work and respect.  Moving Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow to the hands of third parties, drafting and signing players who were solid locker room additions. If he did anything wrong, it was his complete unwillingness to embrace any athlete who may actually be worth the headache and taking pennies on the dollar in return.  Then again, maybe every such a character he came across may not have been “worth” what went on behind the scenes – it’s safe to assume that what leaks out to fans or media is merely a trailer for the feature film.

Small sample size to be sure, but Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard – both having off-field issues when playing at the collegiate level – appear to be worth their high-round selection despite a few red marks on their draft-day scorecard.  Thankfully, these young men are also surrounded by D’Qwell Jackson, Scott Fujita and Athyba Rubin – the hard-working, results-based foundation of the Cleveland defense. It was only a matter of time before the Jets could add elements of Brayon Edwards, Shonn Greene and Holmes to an overrated and overexposed quarterback while getting rid of the Brad Smith-types before before their culdron began to bubble over with embarrassment.

Same can be said for a town 2,800 miles away in Sacramento, California. The Kings have been trading in the doldrums of the NBA ever since Peja Stojakovic clanked a potentially huge playoff three-pointer off of the side of the glass.  In attempt to work their way back in to relevancy, they’ve drafted players like Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins while trading for JJ Hickson. The latter of the three butted heads with the old school Byron Scott over such intricacies as effort and hustle and rebounding the basketball – things typically expected of 6-foot-9-inch athletic power forwards. Evans has had bouts with conditioning and team play, and just this week we have Cousins, the second-year player out of Kentucky with awful efficiency totals and one hell of an attitude, allegedly demanding a trade despite being a focal point of the team’s frontcourt.

Legit demands or not, Cousins has been a distraction at nearly every level as a basketball player, getting into arguments with coaches and teammates, allowing his girth to get to extrodinary levels and throwing as many temper tantrums as he has thunderous dunks. In 2010-11 alone, Cousins had a dust-up with a teammate who didn’t pass him the ball at the end of a game, a verbal confrontation with a team training staff member (who was being paid pennies compared to the player), and an ejection from a practice after talking back to head coach Paul Westphal.

As ESPN’s JA Adande has pointed out, there are some cases where these instances work to the detriment of the player (like Michael Beasley falling behind Derrick Rose in terms of draft stock as well as at the NBA level despite having the better collegiate career), but also instances where time fixes some wounds and all that’s needed is a willing, patient suitor. (Lamar Odom’s well-traveled career finally shaping up in Los Angeles being a prime example.) Unfortunately, it appears that there are more of the former as Darius Miles’ and Lawrence Phillips’ careers never wind up being worth the wait.

Also unfortunate is that the Cousins incident appears to have cost Westphal – a man who led a veteran group of players to the NBA Finals earlier in his career – his job. Of course, it may be Westphal’s employer who may have done most of the damage by drafting Cousins in the first place, forcing the coach to embrace a player who appears to embrace no one but himself. And for trading Peja for Ron Artest Metta World Peace. And for trading Bobby Jackson for Bonzi Wells… Where players like Michael Crabtree (or Cousins) fall in the pantheon of once-deemed miscreants remains to be seen, but Westphal is just another fall-guy for a franchise who has opted to ignore character and focus primarily on box scores.

Back in Cleveland, though not exactly amassing as many wins as fans would prefer, both Pat Shurmur and Byron Scott are surrounded by a lot of quality people.  Fans will hear both Chris Grant and Dan Gilbert reference the quality character traits of their recent draft selections; fans embrace notoriously philanthropic Josh Cribbs and Joe Haden as Brown and Orange deities whenever given the chance. Joe Thomas, though quiet and potentially underrated in terms of leadership and the above-mentioned Mack certainly provide a stable foundation, one that can absorb the potential issues which could arise by a rookie wide receiver or a running back removing himself from the team both mentally and physically.

It wasn’t long ago that Brandon Marshall was linked to the Cleveland rumor mill, but there was no way that this city was ready to add his rap sheet to a young locker room.  Same can be said for Portland ridding themselves of Zach Randolph once Brandon Roy showed up; great player, but not one to be in a leadership role. Same can also be said for anyone largely connected to the LeBron James era in Cleveland – there’s a reason why Anderson Varejao and Boobie Gibson are the only players from the 2007 championship team still calling Cleveland home. There’s a reason why this team drafted Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson and is very high on guys like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Sure, Cleveland may be littered with choir boys and Rhodes Scholars, and they may not be leading to many wins at present time.  But once the foundation is built and each franchise can afford to take a risk on a few select individuals – those “give me the damn ball”-types - down the road, the wins will certainly start pouring in while the potential for collapse, a la the New York Jets and their “must win now” mind frame, will be considerably reduced.

(Holmes Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
(Cousins Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

  • Porkchop xpress

    Doesn’t this go back to Gund trading Ron Harper for Danny (expletive deleted)Ferry, due to Harper’s extracurriculars? Is there an article that can be written that doesn’t have a tie with some monumental moment of pain and stupidity for us?

    I’d also ad Greg Little and his 100 or so parking tickets to Sheard and Taylor. I usually try to separate these things into crimes of youth/stupidity and crimes of ego. The first category is speeding parking tickets, a fight in college (1 fight, 2 moves you to the other category same as 1 alcohol offense), basically things that all 18-22 year olds go through. The other category includes beating women, multple alcohol or fightings offenses, repeatedly being disciplined by the team, basically things that show an attitude that the player feels he can get away with things due to athletic talent. The big in between is weed, I bet it is used as much as booze in NBA/NFL circles but a possession charge is treated much more severely than an alcohol charge almost all the time. Ask Minne. and Tampa Bay how thankful they are that Moss and Sapp both smoked in college.

  • Lyon

    I’m with Porkchop. I’ll take a guy who made mistakes due to youth, but will pass when it’s repeated due to attitude.

    But truly, there is no true answer here. You have to take it on a case by case basis. Russell Westbrook is seen to have attitude problems, but he could be 100% happy somewhere else b/c then he’d be “the man” instead of 2nd fiddle.

    Given the choice between the 2 extremes though, I’d gladly favor the “choir boy” guys just for the sake you won’t have to worry about off the field stuff affecting play.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Scott

    PCX – Little can definitely be added in there. I vaguely mentioned him toward the end.

    There are countless names of all sports; recall that Calvin Johnson admitted to smoking pot before the combine and the porch-dwellers had rolled newspapers in hand. There are definitely different kinds of people, but I think this plays more into the above narrative than anything else.

  • CTOWNDAWGPOUND

    @Porkchop I would also have to include Dan Marino ,on that list.Albeit that his was a rumoured pot smoking problem,Pittsburgh still passed on him and it was such a mistake Art Rooney mentioned it on his deathbed!

  • mgbode

    reading this article I thought you were going to close with:

    Therefore, I think the Browns should draft Justin Blackmon :)

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Craig Lyndall

    It is such a cyclical thing too in the NFL. You really need that foundation of team leaders before you take chances on marginal locker room guys. The Pats are set with Belichick and Brady so they can take chances on Moss or Ochocinco.

    Hopefully someday the Browns get there.

    The NBA is a different animal altogether because one guy can make such a big difference. That being said, having a strong coach like Byron Scott makes me feel like the Cavs could take a chance in the next couple of years.

  • Porkchop xpress

    @ Lyon I agree you have to judge these things case by case. William Green and Lamar Odom both lost their parents to drugs, lived in violent drug infested worlds and bounced around various family members, one got past it one didn’t. I think a good rule of thumb is that if a Cleveland team is planning on drafting the player you can tell how its going to turn out (The Don Rogers rule).
    Pots tough because it undeniably effects your ability to perform athletically as any smoking would, however I would take a pot smoker over a drinker because you don’t have to worry about him getting into trouble.
    You will never in your life read a story that starts “Athlete X slapped his girlfriend around then threw a guy through the window of a bar, claims he was “too high”.

  • mgbode

    @Porkchop – well, then again, maybe you need that aggression in football? drafting someone who once threw a guy through a window seems to be working out for us now that he’s learned to control that aggression (we hope)

    #philtaylor

    (Editor’s note: #jabaalsheard)

  • Porkchop xpress

    mgbode, touche’

  • Goldenflash7903

    When we talk about character like this it leads me to Tim Tebow. He is the only player to catch hell from fans and media for being a upstanding citizen and a Christian. It is odd to me that Tim Tebow gets so much negativity thrown his way for being a good guy and a what appears to be a good teammate. The funny part is, they are usually the same people who shake thier finger at a player like PacMan Jones. Does the “Charlie Church” act wear thin at times, yes, but look at the alternative, at least he’s a good guy.

    I also agree, most things can be disregarded in college if it’s not to serious. I really think most of these things are blown way out of proportion becuase of the amounts of media and lack of real news to spread through it.

  • Baclap

    How to correctly build a football team in Cleveland is really beyond me so I won’t comment on that. As for basketball though, I believe character is extremely important. The NBA has created this culture where talented players don’t think they should ever spend a year with a struggling team. We need guys in Cleveland who are smart enough and talented enough to commit to a long-term winning philosophy as a professional basketball organization. Guys like Cousins are frankly too stupid to buy into something like that. Gilbert has said that he plans to build this team first through the draft, secondly through trades, and lastly through free agency. He’s on to something with that approach. This is incredibly wishful thinking, but I look at the Spurs as the model organization. I want that.

  • mgbode

    thanks for the assist to whichever editor corrected my post.

    for some reason, i was thinking that is why Phil Taylor transferred from Penn State to Baylor.

    at least I knew it happened in PA :)

  • Grif_E

    Reading this I came to the conclusion that there’s a WFNY editor pool on who can submit an article with the highest number of sports names, or ratio of unique professional sports related names to words in an article without making an outright list. Reminded me how much of a parochial casual sports fan I really am.

  • Bob

    egregious*