Mike Pettine, the head coach for the Cleveland Browns, is my kind of guy. We’re almost the same age (he’s three months older than I am), neither of us need any hair products, and we are both the sons of legendary dads. Well, his dad, Mike Sr., was a renowned high school football coach who won four Pennsylvania state titles while my dad fixed machines in a sweater factory, but I’m sure they went about their jobs similarly.
In any case, Pettine so badly wanted to become an NFL coach that, at age 35, he quit a pretty good paying high school head coaching position and took an entry-level video job with the Baltimore Ravens. It was such a ludicrous career move that then-Ravens coach Brian Billick basically pleaded with him to come to his senses and just go back home. But Pettine had this crazy dream, and he took the job, and he was befriended by Ravens assistant coach Rex Ryan (Pettine knew how to use the computer system; Ryan didn’t) and he slowly plodded his way up to assistant coach, then coordinator and then, against crazy odds, head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
How can you not love a story like that? Yes, Mike Pettine is my kind of guy.
This is why I sympathize with his seemingly incoherent decision to start 36-year-old mostly backup quarterback Josh McCown against the Oakland Raiders rather than starting the Browns’ first-round pick last year, Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Manziel. I don’t particularly agree with the decision. But I sympathize with it. No, it ain’t easy being a Cleveland Browns fan. But, realistically speaking, it also ain’t easy being a Cleveland Browns coach.
Sunday, during Week 3 of my return to Cleveland Browns fanhood, the camera kept flashing to Pettine every time McCown threw off target and the Cleveland fans started booing or chanting, “Johnny! Johnny!” And each time, Pettine wears this odd look on his face. It’s a hard look to figure out. It isn’t a look of defiance (“Josh is my guy!) or a look of confidence (“Hey, I know what I’m doing here!”).
No, it is something else, something harder to interpret. As the game goes on, and it becomes clear that the Browns are not going to win, I start trying to figure out what is going on in Mike Pettine’s head.
* * *
First drive, right off the bat, the Raiders make me relive Red Right 88. It’s a sickness, I know. That stupid play happened almost 35 years ago, and nobody other than, say, the Count of Monte Cristo or maybe Pete Best or that guy who decided he didn’t want to co-own Apple anymore should be lamenting stuff that happened so long ago.
But, I can’t help it. Maybe if the Browns had won a Super Bowl … or been to a Super Bowl … or not left Cleveland … but Red Right 88 keeps haunting me. The day — Jan. 4, 1981 — is seared in my memory. I was 13 years old. And I learned that the world isn’t fair.
Quick recap of Red Right 88: The Browns were in a home playoff game against the Oakland Raiders; they were the first Browns team in my memory to make the playoffs. They were called the Kardiac Kids — two Ks for cuteness — because they came back to win repeatedly. They were led by my personal hero, a California surfer dude named Brian Sipe. I liked Sipe for many of the same reasons I like Pettine; nobody really believed in him. He was a 13th-round afterthought out of San Diego State — Sipe was actually drafted after Jim Fassel. He had led all of college in passing, but for NFL purposes, he was deemed too small, too slow and with too weak an arm.
In this case, it’s hard to fault the NFL scouts. I cannot overstate the weakness of Sipe’s arm. His passes were like the “Little Train That Could” — they fluttered and flapped in the Cleveland wind. You could almost hear them moaning in mid-air like some Mel Brooks character, “Wait, what’s the hurry, I’ll get there, just let me rest for a minute, what’s the rush anyway?”
But, Sipe’s passes did get there, again and again, and I don’t think there has ever been a quarterback who was better at running the two-minute drill. In 1980, he threw for 4,000 yards when that was a big deal (only Joe Namath and Dan Fouts had done it), and he was named NFL MVP and he led the Browns to a division title. On a scale of 1-to-10 my belief in Brian Sipe registered at about 594,381. He was taking the Browns to the Super Bowl. There wasn’t even the slightest doubt in my 13-year-old brain.
So, Red Right 88: The Browns were down to the Raiders by two, 49 seconds left, ball on the Raiders’ 13-yard line. Cleveland was in position for a game-winning 30-yard field goal (remember when holders stood just seven yards behind the snapper rather than eight?). But there were some complications. It was miserably cold (minus-36 wind chill at game start) and typically windy. Browns kicker Don Cockroft (one of the last straight-on kickers in the NFL) had already missed a 30-yard field goal and also a 47-yarder. So it was no sure thing.
The Browns coach at the time was the lovable Sam Rutigliano, good old Sam, who turned the Browns into a freewheeling passing team because, as he said, anything else would be boring. He called the play — officially Red Slot Right, Halfback Stay, 88 — and told Sipe that if no one was open in the end zone he was to (say it with me Cleveland fans) “throw the ball into Lake Erie.” Sipe nodded like he understood.
But he didn’t understand, couldn’t understand, because Brian Sipe didn’t see the world the way others did. If he had seen the world their way, he would have been back in San Diego teaching kids how to surf. In Brian Sipe’s world, someone was ALWAYS open. That was his genius, his magic, the reason he had carried the Browns to playoffs in the first place. He dropped back and saw an open Ozzie Newsome and threw it. Newsome was not open. He also slipped. Oakland’s Mike Davis intercepted the ball, blasting a giant hole in my childhood.
What brought all this back? On the Raiders’ opening drive, they moved the ball deep into Cleveland territory and then, on third down, quarterback Derek Carr dropped back to throw, saw no one was open, and hurled the ball toward Lake Erie.
Dammit, see? It really isn’t that hard.
* * *
Sebastian Janikowski came out to kick the field goal for the Raiders. And this is was a fun reminder: Sebastian Janikowski is still kicking for the Oakland Raiders. This is awesome. I have vivid images in my memory of Janikowski wearing the old one-bar helmet, of him hugging John Madden after Super Bowl XI, of him being named to the all American Football League team, or him frustrating Papa Bear Halas with a long kick.
it’s possible that I am overstating just how old Janikowski is — the years do blend together — but I do know he has been kicking footballs for a long time. There’s something wonderfully familiar about him. He’s a big guy (6-foot-2, 250 pounds) but in a different way from all the other big guys in the NFL. He looks like the big guy who offers you a beer when you’re walking by his homemade tent in the parking lot. He walks gingerly, like the ground is unsteady underneath him, and as he prepares to kick he throw out his right arm like he’s shooing off someone and then he crushes the ball.
The Raiders drafted him in the first round in 2000 — ahead of, among others, running backs Shaun Alexander, linebacker Adalius Thomas and a quarterback named Brady or something like that — and were duly mocked for it. But, here we are, 15 years later, and the guy is still out there booting field goals for Oakland. He has scored more than 1,500 points. He has kicked 48 field goals of 50-plus yards, second only to Jason Hanson in NFL history. He has been the one bit of consistency for an Oakland team that craves consistency. Raiders fans love him. Turns out, he was probably the Raiders’ best first-round pick this century.
* * *
The Browns have a dog mascot named “Swagger.” I did not know this until Sunday and honestly don’t know how to feel about it.
* * *
Early in the second quarter, with Oakland leading, 3-0, the Browns defense forced a three-and-out and a punt. The game was coughing along just as you would expect when two mediocre-to-lousy teams get together: Everyone just waits to see who will make the first comical mistake.
It should be said: The Raiders came into the game an even bet to make that first comical mistake. There was a time when the Raiders were everything that was awesome. They were pirates. They wore black. They got their own NFL Films song. They were Ken Stabler and Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson and Lyle Alzado, they were like the pro football version of Ric Flair, stylin’ and proflin’. They were so cool then that that old image still pierces through when you think about the Raiders.
But that was such a LONG time ago. How long ago was it? Well, they have not won a Super Bowl since 1984. You remember that famous commercial Apple ran to introduce the MacIntosh computer? Yeah: It was that Super Bowl.
And the Raiders have not had a winning record in more than a decade. They had an 11-game road losing streak coming into this game. They had not won a game in the Eastern Time Zone since 2009. Yes, the Raiders come in every bit as likely to make the comical mistake as the Browns.
Unfortunately, no, the Browns beat them to it. On the punt, a whole bunch of Browns ran into Raiders punter Marquette King. I don’t know exactly how many Browns ran into him, but there were enough to install an underground pool. It has been a long time since I’ve seen that obvious a roughing-the-punter penalty. Usually, the rougher will hold his hands up in the air (“I didn’t touch him”) and the punter will take some sort of Italian soccer dive, and it will all be questionable. Not this one. A whole bunch of Browns just plowed into King, he went down, the flag jumped out of the referee’s pocket and threw itself.
Then the Raiders drove the ball the length of the field and scored to make it 10-0. After a Cleveland field goal, the Raiders again drove the length of the field to make it 17-3. The Browns’ return man then fumbled the ensuing kickoff and was saved by a shaky replay overturn. When the second half started, the Browns again flubbed their opening drive, the Raiders kicked another field goal. It was 20-3 when I really started to consider Mike Pettine’s philosophy of life.
* * *
At halftime, Browns fans booed. It occurs to me that there is at least one generation of Browns fans who think that’s the natural state of football, that home fans always boo their team going in at halftime.
I’m not much of a boo person, myself. I’m not philosophically opposed to booing your team when they are playing lousy, but I just don’t think I’d get any joy out of it. I mean, it’s not like the players and coaches are running into the tunnel thinking, “Wow, we played great!” Booing just seems repetitive.
* * *
I mentioned last week that I am not a Johnny Football fan. That said, I don’t see much logic in benching him for Josh McCown. Manziel was the Browns’ first-round pick last year. At some point, they have to decide if he can be an NFL starter. And, most obvious of all, there’s no future with Josh McCown. Even if you believe that every team that gave up on McCown over the last 13 years was wrong — believe that Arizona was wrong, Detroit was wrong, the Raiders were wrong, Carolina was wrong, Chicago was wrong, Tampa Bay was wrong — he’s still 36 years old. There’s a funny line in the new movie “The Intern” where Robert De Niro applies to be a senior intern at a tech company and someone asks him, “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?”
He says: “I’m 70 years old.”
Josh McCown was in the same draft as Joey Harrington, who has been an announcer for almost a decade.
So … why? Why would Mike Pettine start and play Josh McCown.
There are three possibilities that come to mind.
1. Pettine has already determined that Manziel is not an NFL starting quarterback but obviously can’t publicly say that.
2. Pettine honestly believes that McCown gives his team a better chance to win games.
3. Pettine is scared to put his hard-earned career in the mercurial and erratic hands of Johnny Football.
I think all three of these are very real possibilities, and it is likely that each played a role in the decision. But the more I watch Pettine coach on Sunday, the more I try to decipher that inscrutable look of his, the more I decide that I’m going with Curtain No. 3: He doesn’t want to stake his job on Johnny Football.
This is why I’m sympathetic. The Browns have been spectacularly dysfunctional since returning to Cleveland. They have repeatedly changed quarterbacks and coaches and assistant coaches and general managers. That sort of turmoil destroys the foundation of a team in ways that are obvious and ways that are not so obvious. One of the less obvious ways it wrecks a team is that it forces people to constantly think short-term. There’s no point in thinking about how to build a team for two or three years down the road when you know that you are not going to be around when the team actually gets built. There’s no point in taking the long view when there is a brick wall three inches in front of your face.
Mike Pettine is in the second year of the dream job he risked everything to get. And look at the brick wall he’s staring at — the last three Browns coaches:
Rob Chudzinski, one year, 4-12, FIRED.
Pat Shurmur, two years, 9-23, FIRED.
Eric Mangini, two years, 10-22, FIRED.
What does that tell you? Does he get this year to try and develop Johnny Manziel? History would tell you: No. Win now.
Well, the Browns can’t win now because they’re not good. They’re not good because in 2013 they drafted Barkevious Mingo and in 2012 they drafted Trent Richardson and in 2011 they traded down rather than draft Julio Jones or JJ. Watt. And so on. They’re not good because in the last decade, they have drafted five different quarterbacks in the Top 3 rounds and they have not developed any of them. They’re not good because, well, look around, all you see are scraps of old plans and remnants of past hopes and fragments left over from the last coach or the one before him. This isn’t a team, it’s several hundred jigsaw puzzle pieces pulled from 10 different boxes.
In other words, Pettine is doing exactly what human nature suggests he would do. If he needs to win now, then Manziel is a wild card. He is unpredictable and undisciplined, and he absolutely could singlehandedly lose a game that the rest of the team (and a limited veteran quarterback) would win. True, one possible future of the Browns could depend on him developing and learning how to stop making those mistakes. But there’s no time to think about the future. There is only time to think about winning now — or, more specifically, not losing now.
So, yeah, I think Pettine is thinking about not losing. In the second half, Josh McCown almost led the Browns to a stirring comeback. He led the Browns on three second-half scoring drives, made some nice passes, and (after the Browns fumbled away an earlier chance) he got the ball back with a chance to lead the Browns to a game-tying touchdown in the last minute. It didn’t quite go that way. McCown got baited by future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson into throwing a dreadful interception. But it could have worked.
And that, I think, was what the look on Mike Pettine’s face said: It could have worked.