Players haven’t given up on Mangini … yet
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The conversation started innocently on Monday morning. I’d gotten in touch with a Cleveland Browns player who I had known for several years. We talked about his family, his sad attempt at developing a new golf swing and traded some speculation we’d each heard about Michael Crabtree(notes) and the San Francisco 49ers’ recent charges of tampering against the New York Jets. And in the midst of it, the player walked right into the reason I had called in the first place.
“Can you have like, tampering in reverse?” he cracked. “Is there such a thing as that? Because I’m thinking of having some reverse tampering.”
He laughed when he said it, although it sounded like the kind of joke you make when part of you wants something to come true. But it was a joke nonetheless – Browns players aren’t begging former coaches to pry them off the Cleveland roster … at least, not yet. Give it another month and who knows how much lower the Browns can sink.
After scoring nine points in the last two games combined, the conversation has already shifted to whether the Browns have given up on coach Eric Mangini – though this particular Browns player denied that notion.
“It’s not true. I don’t believe that,” he said. “I mean, we’re still sacrificing. I haven’t heard anyone say ‘I don’t want to give it up for [Mangini].’ That’s when you know guys are going through [the motions]. I’m not feeling that. … Guys are embarrassed, but it’s only three games. What is the record of the teams we’ve lost to?”
That would be a combined 9-0 for the three teams (Minnesota Vikings, Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens) that have beaten the Browns. And while that has some redeeming value (it’s better to lose to winners than to losers), there’s no denying this is a roster and a head coach that have gotten off on the wrong foot. There was the infamous 10-hour bus ride that Mangini made his rookies endure to take part in his Connecticut-based football camp. There was the butting heads with various veterans, from defensive tackle Shaun Rogers(notes) to wideout Braylon Edwards(notes) to jettisoned tight end Kellen Winslow(notes). And of course, the recent fines, including $1,701 for not paying for a $3 bottle of water at a hotel, which is heading toward a showdown between the Browns and the NFL Players Association.
Frame that around an uninspired 0-3 start, a porous defense and a non-functional offense which has already moved from Brady Quinn(notes) to Derek Anderson(notes), and Cleveland has a way of making other sad-sack franchises look highly functional. And at least one thing is clear (and this player admitted as much), Mangini’s lack of a personable relationship with his roster is hurting him.
“He’s not going to show up to your birthday party,” the player said with a laugh. “But oh well. He’s the coach and you’re the player. What are you going to do?”
So far? Lose.
Here are a few more of this week’s inconvenient truths:
Heyward-Bey should be on the bench solving a crossword puzzle
Let’s just get the cards on the table: Oakland Raiders rookie receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey(notes) has been awful. Watching him play, he’s what NFL coaches like to refer to as a “run around guy”, meaning Heyward-Bey runs around a lot without really accomplishing anything. In fact, other than annually employing a few municipal workers – taxes on $38.25 million will employ a lot of garbage men – he’s done virtually nothing. Three starts have produced one catch for 18 yards.
If that number sounds bad, I’d advise Raiders fans to review the team’s first three games while just focusing on Heyward-Bey. It will make you wish you had Ted Ginn Jr.(notes) the rest of the season. It might even make you wish you had Troy Williamson(notes), who is currently on injured reserve and also, you know, Troy Williamson.
Fortunately for Oakland, the alternative to Heyward-Bey is about to get a little more appealing. Chaz Schilens(notes) will be returning from his foot injury in the coming days, giving quarterback JaMarcus Russell(notes) a 6-foot-5, 225-pound target to throw at (I’d say throw to, but who are we kidding). Based on how he looked up until the foot injury, Schilens is this team’s No. 1 wideout. The question is, will the Raiders do the right thing and send Heyward-Bey to the bench, and keep fourth-round pick Louis Murphy(notes) in the starting lineup? If they have recognized what the rest of us have, Murphy has been leaps and bounds better in the early going.
Of course, we’ve seen money and draft status dictate Russell’s standing over the last few months in this franchise, so you have to believe this isn’t going to end with the logical decision.
On second thought, the Cutler critics have been way off
I never had a great feel for whether Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler(notes) was the kind of quarterback who was a function of his surrounding talent, or a guy who had the ability to make the players around him better. I hadn’t seen enough of him live, and never really spent a great deal of time reviewing Denver’s games the last few seasons. Instead, I relied on the expertise of two AFC West personnel men. Frankly, neither of them gave Cutler glowing reviews. And one was practically cursing his trade to Chicago, because he firmly believed Cutler would always find a way to melt down as a season progressed.
Maybe those guys are right – maybe Cutler will betray all of the expectations and excitement he has built over the last two weeks. But he has been very intriguing in his three games, which have already run the gauntlet from utter failure in the season-opener to resounding success in back-to-back wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks. What intrigues me is that in those three games, Cutler has dispelled some of the things that Broncos coach Josh McDaniels supposedly did not like about him. When the Broncos were flirting with Matt Cassel(notes), a source with ties to McDaniels said the Broncos coach didn’t think Cutler responded well to failure; didn’t think Cutler made good decisions in crunch situations; and couldn’t make the players around him exponentially better.
And yet, since the season-opening debacle against the Green Bay Packers, which Cutler still labels “embarrassing”, he’s won two straight, completed 48 of 65 pass attempts (a shade under 74 percent) for 483 yards, with five touchdowns and only one interception.
More impressive, the wins over Pittsburgh and Seattle both featured fourth-quarter comebacks. And on the game-winning drives? How’s this for crunch: Cutler is 7-for-7 for 70 yards, including a touchdown pass and a 2-point conversion. He’s also spreading the ball around to players not named Greg Olsen(notes) and Matt Forte(notes). Through three games, three wideouts each have more than 150 yards receiving: Devin Hester(notes) (187), Earl Bennett(notes) (168) and Johnny Knox(notes) (159).
If those realities don’t demonstrate an ability to bounce back, play clutch football and flourish with the tools you have, I don’t know what does.
Merriman is on his way out of town
Give San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman(notes) his due: He had everyone excited coming out of the offseason. He said he was in the best shape of his life and out to prove that he hadn’t fallen into the abyss of formerly dominant defensive players. But he’s got six tackles through three games, and wasn’t able to make it all the way through Sunday’s win over the Miami Dolphins, thanks to a groin injury. But even before that game, Merriman didn’t look entirely right. He hasn’t been consistently explosive – nor has he required the constant double-teaming that defined his presence prior to last season’s season-ending knee surgery.
It’s not to say Merriman hasn’t flashed. He pressured Joe Flacco(notes) into an interception in the Week 2 loss to the Ravens. But he’s not finishing, he’s not entirely healthy with the groin, and until he proves otherwise, that knee is going to be a looming concern. The Chargers hope he’ll be right after this week’s bye, but take the longer view of what is happening. San Diego didn’t draft Larry English(notes) for nothing. He’s Merriman’s long-term replacement, plain and simple. And the longer it takes Merriman to regain his past form – even 90 percent of what he once was would be an accomplishment – the more the Chargers are going to lean on English.
General manager A.J. Smith is famously non-sentimental. And Merriman’s recent off-field drama with former girlfriend Tila Tequila didn’t sit well with Smith – particularly considering the number of off-field incidents that is beginning to accrue during Smith’s tenure. Add in the fact that the Chargers are piling up long-term deals, and that Smith has never shown the inclination to give Merriman the money he has been seeking for nearly two years, and the writing is on the wall. A few months ago, the belief was that if Merriman returned to dominance this season, Smith would put the franchise tag on him and ride him out another season. But with the last month in mind, even that kind of commitment is in doubt.
The Broncos are overrated
As you read this sentence, I can hear the furious click of fingertips on computer keys as Broncos fans prepare to fire off an explicit salvo of emails. And while I respect the Denver faithful, someone has to say it: your 3-0 start is more squeezable and soft than Charmin’s 24-pack.
Yes, the defense is doing what a good NFL unit is supposed to do: rush the passer, force turnovers and pound the opposition with no remorse. But the Broncos have played two offenses that are beyond horrifying in Oakland and Cleveland. The only redeeming feature of either of those wins is that they didn’t come over the St. Louis Rams. And while Denver did manage to beat a solid Cincinnati team that is now 2-1, I’m just going to go ahead and say what everyone outside of Denver thinks of that win: It was hollow. That was a 7-6 loss stolen away by a fluke. Run that play another 99 times and it won’t happen again.
And while the Broncos’ offseason additions have played well against terrible teams, nobody will be convinced that Denver is legitimate until it rolls up some wins – plural – against playoff-caliber teams that don’t require a miracle in the final seconds. In fact, I think we’ll know everything we need to about this team by Week 7, after the Broncos have played the Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots and San Diego.
A playoff-caliber team wins two of three and heads into the bye at 5-1. Anything less is just begging for a second-half disappointment, when Denver has to face Baltimore, Pittsburgh, San Diego and the New York Giants.