Watch what you say

The only reasonably interesting thing that happened with the Cleveland Browns last week was that before the game coach Mike Pettine sort of, kind of, possibly but not definitely denigrated Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson by calling him a “next-tier quarterback.” Wilson then played brilliantly, continuing his almost unbelievable hot streak, as the Seahawks destroyed the Browns.

Pettine’s quote for posterity, is as follows:

“Would you put him there with the guys that can transcend their supporting cast? The Bradys, whether it’s Aaron Rodgers, (Drew) Brees, (Ben) Roethlisberger, the ones that you would consider the two, three, four elite guys? No. But he’s certainly played himself into that next tier.”

To complete the picture: Pettine then said a lot of good things about Wilson and how the Seahawks use him and how it all works … but all anyone really heard was that whole bit that sounded like he considered Wilson a second-tier quarterback.

What made this reasonably interesting to me was not the quote itself (I’m not sure how up-to-date any top quarterbacks list is with Drew Brees but without Cam Newton) or any question about additional motivation (Wilson seems to be pretty motivated every week) or anything at all to do with Wilson’s actual place among NFL quarterbacks (you would think taking two consecutive teams with mediocre receivers to the Super Bowl and leading the NFL in passer rating this year answers all questions).

No, the reasonably interesting question is this: Why in the heck did Mike Pettine say THAT in the week that the Browns were playing the Seahawks?

He had to know in the everything-is-news NFL that saying Wilson in not a top-tier quarterback the very week the Browns are playing the Seahawks would make news, no matter how much sugar-coating he put around it.  He had to know the Seahawks would probably lambaste his Browns and make those words look kind of stupid. Pettine also had to know that with the Browns’ comical history of quarterback building that he would open himself up to wicked burns, like this from Seattle’s Michael Bennett: “Obviously he’s not very good at picking quarterbacks … maybe he doesn’t know what elite is.”

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So, why? Pettine explained it thusly: He was being honest in a time when coaches tend to stick to bland talking points. “I try to answer the questions I get asked honestly and really don’t have time to sit around and rank the quarterbacks,” he said. And then, in a funny line*, he said: If anyone is interested, I have my updated QB rankings: Every QB that’s ever played is tied for No. 1.”

*He also had another funny line, at least I thought it was funny. Speaking on radio, Pettine said: “There aren’t too many quarterbacks I have more respect for than Russell Wilson.” For some reason, this was taken as Pettine backing down from his original statement, but if you think about that quote, he’s saying EXACTLY the same thing. He’s saying there ARE quarterbacks he respects more than Wilson — just not too many. Three or four, I’m guessing.

Many years ago, at a Super Bowl press conference, then-Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson was asked some question about his relationship with the media. He looked out over the hundreds of reporters and basically said this: “You use me, and I use you.” It was cynical, sure, but it was also as succinct and apt a description of the football coach-media dance as I have heard.

We as reporters are trying to find insights, news, interesting and illuminating stories to tell. That’s our job. Maybe we do it, maybe we don’t, but that’s the goal.

Coaches, meanwhile, are trying to build teams that win games. And so, when talking to the press, they are of course talking through the press. They are trying to get messages across.

Those two missions are often at odds, of course. You can feel the tension at every press conference. A reporter will ask a question with the hope that the answer will provide interesting material for readers and viewers and listeners. The NFL coach, usually, will answer in a way that communicates what he would like the players, management, ownership and the fans to hear. That doesn’t always mean boring answers. But it often means boring answers.

Which is why a question like “Do you think Russell Wilson is a a top 10 quarterback?” will almost always get this answer:

“He’s an amazing player and a great challenge for us this week. It’s no secret that he can beat you many different ways. He can beat you from the pocket. He can beat you outside the pocket. He can beat you as a runner. He’s smart and talented and the Seahawks use his talents very well. We know that we have our hands full.”

Total non-answer. Maybe the reporter does a follow up, trying to pin down the ranking part. No coach would fall for that though, not the week of a game.

Coach: “In my mind, there’s only one way to rank a quarterback: Does his team win games? The Seahawks win a lot of games.”

So to get back to it: Why would Pettine say that bit about Russell Wilson not transcending his supporting cast. There are only two possible reasons. One is that he was just yakking off the top of his head, as if he was a radio talk show caller, and while there’s something kind of charming about that, it is probably a dumb thing for a football coach on the hottest of hot seats to do. I hold Pettine in high enough regard to think that he had some ulterior motive for saying that since it is now just about the only thing many NFL fans know about him.

But what ulterior motive? My guess is that Pettine was trying to show that he is who he is, that even at the end of this miserable season, with everyone just assuming that he will be fired, he will not hide, he will not duck questions, he will not give the melted vanilla ice cream opinions that other coaches might give.

Is Russell Wilson a top 10 quarterback?

Yeah, sure, he’s top 10, but he’s not quite among the elite. That’s my opinion and I’m not running from it. I am who I am.

So how did it play? I suspect Pettine’s players thought that was kind of a stupid thing to say the week of the game. I mean, in the previous four games Wilson had gone 89 for 118 with 16 touchdown passes and no interceptions. It didn’t seem the best time to question his eliteness. Jimmy Haslam and Browns management probably thought it was kind of a stupid thing to say the week of the game, too, especially with the Browns having their own quarterback issues to worry about. And most Browns fans — even ones who agree with the sentiment — probably thought it was a stupid thing to say, too, on the off-chance that it would make Wilson even one-tenth-of-one-percent more driven.

But, and this cannot be underestimated, there is a chance a television producer was watching.

As for the Browns-Seahawks game itself, nothing new was revealed. Johnny Manziel looked good at times and ordinary at other times, which does not further his story. The Browns’ porous defense gave up 30 points for the ninth time this year and looked as baffled as ever. Major offseason acquisition Dwayne Bowe made two catches, giving him five on the season. And the game was simply another reminder of the vast ocean between the Browns and a good football team. I think next week, I’ll just write about Jim Brown.

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