The 216: Apples to Dumptrucks

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Man, the dog days of February are upon us. If you’re mostly a football/baseball guy, which is mostly how I think of myself, this is the time to address the Honey Do lists and everything else that is more productive than morphing yourself into the Davenport all weekend long. Needless to say, I’ve failed at whatever tasks may have been on the Honey Do, as in “honey do this” and “honey do that”, but it goes without saying that she’s down with the program; that’s what she signed up for when she said “I do”.

 

I’m trying to get into the whole basketball thing, and for that matter, the hockey thing, but it’s just not there for me in 2014. Snow or not, winter sucks. And to be fair, the way our seasons are extended these days, what exactly is the layoff in February? The Super Bowl is played in the early part of the month, and Spring Training games begin a few days before we turn the calendar to March, so the time in between really isn’t that bad. Sometimes, it’s just good to have something to bitch about.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I try to comprehend how good life is, and sometimes I feel like the guy who wins $100,000, but gripes that it isn’t $200,000. Honestly, the Cleveland in me should be satisfied that I have three major sports back in the hometown to support, even if I’ve been lukewarm on the Cavaliers and ice cold on the NBA in general of late. I mean, it’s Cleveland, but still pretty cool, right?

 


Maybe comparing the guy who doesn’t think his windfall is big enough to being a Cleveland fan isn’t a good comparison. Sure, Seattle would love to have representation in the Association, but I wouldn’t say the Cleveland fan that’s obsessed with 1964, as if it’s the only thing to embrace on the north coast, is spoiled. To put those in the same sentence warrants the common “apples-to-oranges” metaphor. But, I don’t care for that metaphor; they really aren’t that different, apples and oranges. I think of dump trucks, which has virtually nothing in common with the apple.

That’s where I’d like to start this party on yet another glorious Sunday morning. Up until they won that Super Bowl earlier this month, Seattle belonged in conversations with Cleveland, when it came to sports misery, at least in my lifetime. They had the “we hardly knew ya” thing with the Pilots, a la the Cleveland Barons. They had the “I can’t believe we lost our team”, and if not for a cameo in the Super Bowl eight years ago, a fairly similar football past. Where Cleveland felt like a good place for a suicide, Seattle proved itself worthy of such a harsh ending to life, but they botched up everything by bringing home a modern day World Championship.


Now, we’re apples-to-dumptrucks with not only Seattle, but also the home of the NFC’s second suitor for a title, the city with basketball on the horizon, two World Series wins after a long drought, and a new stadium on the way for the beloved glass-half-full Niners. The big difference would be Jim Harbaugh, who is 36-11-1 in his first three seasons as an NFL head coach, after inheriting a program that was 21-27 in the last three years before he took over.

 

Two Totally Different Organizations

That Job That Is Happening

Once Jim Harbaugh ceased to the Michigan quarterback, you might say he faded into oblivion. It isn’t that he was a particularly bad professional quarterback; it’s just that he got drafted by a team that was two years removed from a Super Bowl win, a win that was heavily credited to that vaunted Chicago Bears defense, despite what a large character Jim McMahon may have been. After waiting a few years to put down the clipboard and take over the Bears offense, Harbaugh started a majority of the games in 1990 and 1991, when Chicago made the playoffs, but early playoff exits soon became mediocre-to-below-average seasons for the former Wolverine. Retiring with a career 66-74 record as a starter, Harbaugh ended up wearing the journeyman label, with stops in Indianapolis, Baltimore, and San Diego, hanging it up after going winless in 5 starts with the Chargers in 2000.

The thing about Harbaugh after his playing days was, he never worked for that big-time coach or belonged to a program that particularly football-rich. When he wasn’t on the endless journey of a backup quarterback or making cameos on Saved By the Bell, Harbaugh served as an (unpaid) assistant under his father at Western Kentucky. His one and only NFL assistant gig came under Bill Callahan, the Bill Callahan, in Oakland, but only for two seasons before being named the Head Coach at the University of San Diego, which is not to be confused for the larger San Diego State University in the same town.

Obviously, the job that put him in a position to make a name for himself was the one he assumed at Stanford in 2007. He made waves in his first year, beating Pete Carroll, on and off the field, but more memorably on the field as 41-point underdogs at the Coliseum, where they escaped with a 24-23 victory over USC. The Cardinal finished that season 4-8, and then went 5-7 the following year before qualifying for the Sun Bowl with an 8-4 season in 2009. In 2010, thanks in large part to sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck, Stanford went 12-1 with an Orange Bowl win.
 


Without the benefit of a complete off-season, due to the lockout, Harbaugh did a fantastic job immediately upon taking the head coaching job in San Francisco. He went 13-3, and it was clear he’d be doing things differently. With back-to-back games in Cincinnati and Philadelphia, Harbaugh kept his team in Youngstown, rather than travel cross-country in consecutive weeks, and they won both contests on the road. It took a while for people to notice the Niners, because the NFC West sent a 7-9 champion to the playoffs the prior year.

It didn’t matter that they played in that previously weak division, since they were beating everyone in the NFL, regardless of their division or conference. They were doing this all with Alex Smith, but this is a statement worth qualifying. Nobody believed in Alex Smith, not even 49ers fans. I took a trip to Candlestick for a 2011 contest, against the Browns (of course), and I told them they had a good football team, even though I didn’t love their quarterback. The consensus agreed with me, but nobody was going to nitpick 6-1 (their record at the time). There was nothing to say; the only viable backup on the roster was a rookie that some were already titling as a bust, though he’d completed the only 3 NFL passes he’d ever attempted.

 


Even before Colin Kaepernick had “arrived”, this team had weapons, and it was a wonder why Mike Singletary couldn’t do anything with it. They had Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter to run the ball. They had a receiving corps that included Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Ted Ginn Jr., Delanie Walker, and some former Browns receiver that I won’t name, because he’s a Michigan man. They quietly improved their line through the draft, when they were bad enough to be near the top every year.

They lost in the NFL Championship that year, a loss where blame could fall at the feet of the special teams. The next season, Smith was injured and Kaepernick was forced into action. He was anything but a bust; of course, the right team could make an average quarterback better, like this one did with Alex Smith. Credit is probably due to the offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, as well. They found themselves back in the conference championship, this time in Atlanta, where they dug themselves into the hole early, but came back to win. They were beaten like dogs in the first half of the Super Bowl, and made a noble comeback, but came up short in the end after a few ill-fated attempts to beat the Ravens inside the 5-yard line as time ran out.

 
This past season, they were ready to take the next step, which was winning the Super Bowl. The challenge they encountered was in their own division, where Pete Carroll led a tough Seahawks team. The contests were epic in the regular season, and the re-match in the NFC Championship seemed inevitable. With elimination hanging in the balance, Kaepernick made some critical mistakes, which you could blame on coaching, but only if you want to be a dick about it. Make no mistake, a game in Seattle is a game in the belly of the beast, and they came up just short against the eventual Super Bowl champs. If there’s any shame in that, it’s a level of shame that I’ve not experienced as a Cleveland fan in a long time.

It’s probably worth mentioning that in addition to Roman, a still-emerging Kapernick, many of the aforementioned offensive weapons, and an impressive front office, he has Vic Fangio. Fangio has served as the defensive coordinator to do things Greg Manusky could not do with most of the same personnel. The defense had six Pro-Bowlers in 2013, and Tremain Brock, Aldon Smith, and Carlos Rogers were not even among them. It’s also worth mentioning that Harbaugh is unhappy with his current 5-year, $25 million deal, which has two years left on it.

 

The Job That Didn’t Happen

Bill Belichick, Mike Shannahan, and Tom Coughlin all have multiple Super Bowl rings, and they all make between 6 and half and 7 and a half million dollars a year. Sean Payton has just one, but he reportedly makes $8 million a year; Chip Kelly, Andy Reid, and Jeff Fischer have never won the big one, but they all make more money than Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh probably think he’s worth 8, and though staying by the bay for the long haul seems logical, the rumors that the Browns tried to trade for his services have everyone thinking Harbaugh might be ready to defy logic.

 


No one on the outside, and that includes media types like Mike Florio and Ian Rappaport, will never know how genuine the rumors of Harbaugh to Cleveland are, or exactly how close something like this was to happening. Not to beat a dead horse, but Rob Chudzinski lost more games as the Browns head coach than Harbaugh has lost in the same job in San Francisco; he managed to do it in one-third of the time. To get the Browns to 36 wins, a feat Harbaugh has achieved in three regular seasons, you’d need to go back to their 10-win season in 2007, Harbaugh’s first as the head coach in Palo Alto. They are even on the head-count of Pro-Bowlers, but how the 4-12 Browns had six is an anomaly that I won’t attempt to explain.

Needless to say, for a coach of Harbaugh’s pedigree to even consider Cleveland has absolutely nothing to do with competition and everything to do with the price-tag. First off, Harbaugh is my guy from the top, the one that gets $5 million and complains that it isn’t $8 million, but I guess that’s neither here nor there. Financial terms were not disclosed on actual head coach Mike Pettine’s 4 or 5-year deal, but you can bet that it’s a bit south of $5 million a year and well under whatever Harbaugh would demand.

 


That amount, the salary of the head coach, isn’t really something for fans to concern themselves with; it’s just money out of the owner’s checking account. If it were up to me, and compliant with the NFL legalese, I’d offer a million dollars per win, starting with the fourth win, but that’s not up to me to decide. Frankly, I think every NFL team should adapt that policy, but I’m dreaming.

The price tag we’d have cared about, if this was real, which it wasn’t, was Jed York and the 49ers ransom for their superstar, even if somewhat disgruntled, head coach. The trade of note and perhaps the most relevance in this situation was the 2002 migration of Jon Gruden from Oakland to Tampa Bay, which cost the Bucs their first-round picks in 2002 and 2003, as well as $8 million in cash. Those picks ended up being two guys from Colorado, and the Raiders didn’t even keep the 2002 pick, which ended up being Daniel Graham to New England. The cash meant nothing to Tampa Bay fans, but the Super Bowl Gruden won them meant everything. It helped that Tony Dungy had that team Super Bowl-ready.

It’s hard to say what a trade like that would have cost the Browns, but I’m thinking it’s more in the ballpark of what the Rams took from Washington to fall from 2nd to 6th in 2012. In addition to the Redskins’ 1st round pick, which they again traded, the Rams received a 2nd round pick in 2012, and first-rounders in 2013 and 2014. It’s just a matter of asking the question, how desperate were the Browns for Harbaugh’s services, not to mention, would he go for it?

At a minimum, I believe it would have cost Jimmy Haslam his team’s first round picks, both this May and in 2015, and that’s already too much. The Browns still need a quarterback, and they still need someone to lead them on defense. You might be able to talk someone into Brian Hoyer being the former, but there’s no way I’m hearing arguments that Joe Haden or anyone on the roster could be the latter, assuming D’Qwell Jackson isn’t part of the future.

I also have to assume this was a Banner/Lombardi thing, if it has any chance of being true. Though, at this point, it looks like this rumor was born on the left coast. You won’t catch me buying into the perception of how toxic that regime may have been to potential candidates, but if Adam Gase and Todd Bowles weren’t interested in abandoning their incumbent coordinator roles for the Browns, it’s hard to buy into the fact that Harbaugh would leave Trent Baalke and the wildly successful organization in San Francisco.

 


Mike Pettine seems to be unaffected by all of this scuttlebutt, and maybe he’s being honest about that. Anything from Pettine before he coaches his first game is just noise, and we know he doesn’t like the noise, so we shouldn’t either.

One Jamaican’s Walk-Year

Somebody thought Ubaldo Jimenez was worth $50 million for four years of pitching at a level that no one can really predict. That’s the Ubaldo Jimenez that led the American League in losses in 2012, and the Ubaldo Jimenez that went 26-30 in two-plus seasons with the Tribe, after he was supposed to be the answer after a deadline deal in 2011. What does it say that the package the Tribe sent away to get him has been a giant pu-pu platter for Colorado, and Indians fans still hate that trade? More importantly, what does it say that Jimenez waited until August 9th of his walk-year to turn it on, and it paid off?

 


Now, this isn’t about Ubaldo Jimenez any more than it’s about CC Sabathia or Cliff Lee. They’re all gone, and there’s no point in dwelling on the past, but it should still piss us off. Sabathia was responsible for one of the two playoff berths of the last 12 years for the Tribe; the team stunk around him in 2008 and the reality of the team inability to reach his contract demands made trading him for something a no-brainer. The only thing to be upset with Cliff Lee about is turning it on a year late, missing out on important starts in 2007, only to have a majestic 2008 season, while the team around him stunk. Jimenez was 5-9 in 16 starts versus the Tigers, and that’s disappointing on the whole, even if he carried the Indians to the playoffs in the minutes before he could file for free agency.

It’s all water under the bridge at this point. Looking ahead, Justin Masterson is back, but don’t look for him to do the Tribe or Terry Francona any favors when it comes to hometown discounts. He signed a $9.8 million dollar deal to avoid arbitration this season, but free agency is inevitable for the Jamaican-born right-hander.  As Richard Clark at WFNY, among others, has pointed out, Masterson’s position with the MLBPA pretty much prohibits him from doing anything other than squeezing as many dollars into a potential contract as possible.

 


I might be swinging and missing with my attempts to keep the glass half-full here, but knowing Masterson is gone after the season means going all-in for 2014 or getting all the way out. If it’s a season like 2008, figure Masterson to be traded by the end of July. Though they finished 81-81, the Indians were 37-51, a solid 13 games out of first on July 7 when they traded Sabathia. The Tribe was 42-59 when they traded Lee to the Phillies, with a year and a half left on his contract; in both cases, the season was already lost, even if 2010 was somewhat of an unknown before Shapiro unloaded Lee and Victor Martinez, even though neither was expiring. At least the Martinez deal brought back Masterson.

I suppose the good news is that the team has a history of erring on the side of caution, when it comes to knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, given that the team has been a minimum of 15 games under .500 when they’ve moved their aces, going back to the Bartolo Colon trade in 2002. They were only 12 games under the break-even point in 1984 the day they gave the Cubs the 1984 National League Cy Young winner, but they were already 20 behind 1st place Detroit in an era without Wild Cards. In 2012, there was some speculation that a late-July loss to the Tigers would make them sellers at 49-50, but they won the series finale to go over .500 and there hasn’t been anything resembling a fire sale since.

(Knocking on wood.)

It comes down to the rest of the team, mostly, but Masterson has some say in all of this. Masterson had a career year last season; the numbers say so, even if the oblique injury cost him about five starts and reduced him to relief appearances down the stretch. He was still 14-10 with a 3.45 ERA, and he was rewarded with his first trip to the All-Star Game.

 

 

Some might argue that he was the Tribe’s ace in name only, because you weren’t going to make Jimenez or Brett Myers your Opening Day starter. The former Boston pitcher was the consensus answer for that role, no question about it. In the last three seasons, he’s just over .500 as a starter at 37-35, but the numbers that mean the most, right after the win totals, speak well to Masterson’s prospects entering 2014. Strikeouts to walks are at a career-high, and ditto for strikeouts per nine innings. Now, it’s like Crash Davis said, “Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls – it’s more democratic.”

Masty is a sinker-baller, the idea is to get them to swing and let the destination of the ball tell you what’s working. That’s huge, but I’d just as soon not take the chance with Miguel Cabrera at the plate. Strike that guy out, by all means. Speaking of Detroit, he’s 2-7 in 11 starts over the last three seasons against them. All-in or not, I’m not sure it matters in the grand scheme of things, if you can’t get past them.

 

Six In a Row

So, it’s a little early to start planning a parade down Euclid Avenue this June, and we’re dreaming if we think the Cavs are signing any former player above the caliber of Shannon Brown, but some work has been done by Mike Brown and his players since Chris Grant’s presence was no longer requested. Are they showing the world that they’re a force to be reckoned with? Not exactly, but they’re beating up on the dregs of the Association, most of them anyways, so that’s worth affording ourselves a few minutes of joy.

Cavs 115 Wizards 113

This was a close game with Washington, the kind that they’ve shown a penchant for giving away, but they hung on. Dion Waiters outplayed Bradley Beal, so let’s get Chris Grant back; no, don’t go running down Grant over that. How about those 8 points from Anthony Bennett? That’s 8 more than they got from Luol Deng, and they won the game.

Baby steps; beating the Wizards.

Cavs 91 Grizzlies 83

By most accounts, it was an ugly 53 minutes of basketball that Kyrie Irving refused to lose in the first 48. He scored the final four points of regulation, and 28 on the night. CJ Miles knocked down a set of triples, finishing with 14, but this was night was not about double-digit scorers. Anderson Varejao came up huge with 14 boards and 5 assists in 43 minutes. Anthony Bennett’s two points were uber-impressive, and Matthew Dellavedova’s 5 points were secondary to the shutdown defense he played at the beginning of the 4th quarter. Kyrie Irving is still atrocious on defense, but no one here is interested in nitpicking a winning streak.

Cavs 109 Kings 99

Do we even get upset at the annual Anderson Varejao injury that inevitably occurs right before the trade deadline any more? Oh well, maybe we do, but not when Anthony Bennett puts up 19 and 10. They believe in him, and we believe in the Cavs. Could this really be three in a row?

Cavs 93 Pistons 89

Well, Detroit stinks, but don’t let that fact take anything away from Tristan Thompson. 25 points and 15 boards from the ambidextrous Canadian on a night when no one else did anything special. Irving gave them 23 points, but it doesn’t mean he did much more than he needed to do not to give them game away. Will Bynum put up a quick 12 points for Detroit, mostly going against Dellavedova; this should have served as a reminder that we need to hedge our love affair with the rookie from St. Mary’s.

Cavs 114 76ers 85

It was a good night for the Cavs front-court. Bennett gave them another double-double; I can’t wait for that not to be a big deal, but the #1 overall pick in last year’s draft still has time, I suppose. Tyler Zeller had a big night with 18 points and 15 rebounds and Tristan Thompson also had a double-double with 12 points, which put him among the seven Cavaliers in double digits in the scoring column. As bad as things have been for the Cavs, at least they don’t have Philly’s bigs; that Hawes guy made Zeller look like an All-Star.

Not among the scoring leaders, Earl Clark played nearly seven minutes and defensive rebound prevented him from having the unlikely string of zeroes across the stat sheet.

Cavs 101 Magic 93

The Cavs led by 19 at the half, and as many as 21 in the third quarter, but a rejuvenated Shaquille O’Neal Tobias Harris scored nine points in about nine seconds, on two long balls and an “and 1”. The Cavs gave almost all of it back, but did not, denying the Magic a chance to snap their 13-game road losing streak. Thompson gave the Cavs 16 points and 14 boards, making for six in a row, the Cavs first streak of that length since March 19, 2010.  Let’s be real about this, winning six games was like driving a dump truck across the rest of the NBA in 2010; this winning streak wasn’t much more than throwing apples at that might truck that dumps.

Now, of course, the streak ended in Toronto, but no one expects any American to out-do any Canadian in a sporting competition of any sort this week. This is what we get for neglecting Boxing Day for all of these years.

That’s all I have this week. Enjoy the time you have to kill between now and next weekend.

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About Author

Jeff Rich formerly served as More Than a Fan's College Football Editor, and currently contributes to the More Than a Fan sites as a writer. Jeff still has a serious chunk of real estate in his heart reserved for Cleveland's professional teams. He admires them from afar, in his Phoenix, Arizona home. On Sunday mornings from 11 AM to 1 PM Eastern, he can be heard co-hosting Dorf on Sports on Sports Byline USA.