I've got a feeling that Cleveland 6, Buffalo 3 didn't put much salve on the wounds of Browns fans. I know many of them, and one e-mailed me Sunday night after the Browns' first win of the year -- which featured 2-of-17 passing by the starting quarterback. It says much about this edition of the Browns that their star of the game was punter Dave Zastudil. "When the game ended, I felt nothing,'' said my buddy, who grew up in Cleveland and now works on the East Coast. "Zero. Completely numb. It's become so bad, even wins have become all but meaningless.''
The ire of the fans is understandable. This is Year 11 of the Browns' reincarnation, and it's hard to say the team is very far ahead of where it was 10 years ago, when the expansion Browns finished 2-14.
On offense, the Browns have a left tackle of the future, Joe Thomas, but no other franchise players; they'll probably have to draft yet another first-round passer, their third since '99, next April. They need a running back of the future. On defense, they don't have a pass-rusher or anyone who scares a game-planning offensive coordinator except perhaps nose tackle Shaun Rogers. The whispers of agents with players on the team get louder and louder that the coach, Eric Mangini, seems to have as many players against him in the locker room as any other coach in the league.
And if a report by ESPN's Adam Schefter is true -- that rookie running back James Davis was hurt in practice when ordered to run padless against fully padded defensive players -- Mangini will be in trouble with the league and in trouble when he tries to lure free agents to Cleveland next offseason.
The Davis allegations are troubling, and the team has already talked to a league official investigating the incident. The Browns say the incident never happened that way. Davis, they claim, was injured when going against linebacker Blake Costanzo in a post-practice pass-rushing drill, when both players were not wearing pads. The play left Davis on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. The NFL Players Association is also looking into the story, and I'll follow up as developments occur, as best I can.
With all that as a backdrop, let's take a look at what Mangini, who is five games into a four-year contract, and GM George Kokinis have done since taking over. They've made three major trades -- dealing troublesome tight end Kellen Winslow to Tampa for second- and sixth-round picks, trading down with the Jets on draft day to net a passel of players and picks, and sending Braylon Edwards to the Jets last week for two players and two draft picks. They also made a minor one, sending defensive tackle Louis Leonard to Carolina. In all, Cleveland got these 13 pieces of the puzzle (players and draft picks):
Mack is starting and playing passably well. Massaquoi has started three games and is still learning the pro game. Veikune is an inside linebacker project, and Mangini is cautiously optimistic he can learn to be a sideline-to-sideline playmaker. The Jets guys are players Mangini knew, guys who can fill roles; Elam could be a long-term safety and Coleman is a serviceable 3-4 defensive end. The Browns have 11 picks in the 2010 draft, and it's a vital draft for the future of the franchise. (How many times have Browns fans heard that, and gotten their hopes up about Tim Couch or Courtney Brown or Gerard Warren or William Green or Jeff Faine or Edwards or Winslow? Those were the top picks between 1999 and 2005, and none play in Cleveland anymore.)
So, I asked Mangini and Kokinis in separate interviews, do the Browns have a better 53-man roster than they did at the end of the 2008 season?
Kokinis: "I think so. But it's different. To go forward, the environment here had to change. We aren't in this to put band-aids on the problem. We're here to solve the problem. When you establish a system, it's all about building a disciplined program conducive to winning, and you're going to have people at first who fight the system. But we'll find the true Browns who buy into what we're doing. The one thing people need to understand is this situation wasn't like Atlanta, where you can draft Matt Ryan and sign Michael Turner in free agency and win your division. This team was a long way away. Some free-agency periods and some drafts need to happen for the right amount of change to take place.''
Mangini: "Yeah, I think the roster's better. I think we have a much better chance of getting where we want to be with this roster moving forward. But it's not going to be easy. What gets lost a little bit with our draft-day trade is how much money we saved over the long term by trading down -- maybe $40 million. And those resources will be spent to build a better overall football team. That's cash we'll spend on more players.
"For now, we're making improvements. Some of the improvements aren't sexy -- more energy at practice and in games, more intensity, playing complimentary football. But regardless of external perception, we have guys who care. And next year, we'll have 11 draft picks instead of the four we had this year. That's when you can do some building.''
My take: The roster is absolutely not better because no player of the skill level of Edwards or Winslow has been added. But I would have done all three deals that ManKinis did, because Winslow and Edwards were never going to buy into any long-term rebuilding program, which this has to be. There comes a time when team and player have to divorce, and if player has great success after the trade (Roger Clemens when he left Boston), it doesn't mean he'd have had the same success in his original place.
Winslow was damaged goods on and off the field, which Tampa Bay is discovering now, and getting a two and five for him last winter was good. Edwards had two good NFL years, but the book on him was he liked the life of being a football player more than actually being a football player. Shortly before the Browns dealt him to New York, three teams told Cleveland they were not interested in making an offer for him.
Could Edwards have generated interest before the draft last year? Maybe, but not much more than third- and fifth-round picks and two bottom-of-the-roster contributors. (Let's say the Giants would have given the Browns a second-round pick last April, which they never offered. But if they did, what's a better deal -- the 60th pick in 2009, or the 80th and 150th in 2010, plus a fourth receiver and a special-teams-captain type? I'd take the latter.)
We can argue all day about taking Mack as the key pick in the Sanchez deal. I'd have gone for a play-making linebacker like James Laurinaitis or Rey Maualuga, or a top tackle like Michael Oher to pair with Thomas for the long-term, then get a center down the line this year or next. But time will tell on Mack, who needs to be a franchise keystone for this trade to be smart.
"The draft is the equalizer in the NFL,'' said Kokinis. "We've got to make those  picks work.''
Because of the startup nature of the program, Kokinis said he's been spending time in and around the team this fall, instead of concentrating his efforts on on-campus scouting. He said he'd do that after the college season. If I were him, I'd accelerate the process. I'd be spending three days at Texas turning over every stone on Colt McCoy, and three in Norman looking at Sam Bradford -- as well as extensive time looking at the other quarterbacks in the 2010 draft, like Tim Tebow and Jevan Snead. That's more important than whatever's happening in his building right now.
This is a startup program, like Kansas City and St. Louis and Tampa Bay. Anyone who thought the first season would be pretty had misplaced hopes. Though if I were owner Randy Lerner, I'd have moved heaven and earth and acceded to anything Scott Pioli wanted to make him franchise czar. The fact is Lerner hired a coach who'd had a good startup record with the Jets. But for Mangini to succeed, he has to make sure he avoids the same mistakes a coach he knows well, Bill Belichick, made in Cleveland in the first half of the Nineties. Belichick's plan was smart, but his communication and execution were not. Those are the things Mangini's got to work on in Cleveland.
By the way, Lerner's not going to cave after a year and sweep clean. He's tired of the coaching and front-office chaos, and I'm not saying he's going to give Mankinis three seasons like this one, but to think he'll fire the building again this winter is just not happening. This is what I'd say to Browns' fans: It took you years to get into this mess, and it's going to take you at least two years to get out of it.
I know what I'd do if I didn't have a job covering the NFL on Sundays: I'd veg out, man-cave style, and watch the Red Zone Channel. What we at NBC do to prepare for the "Football Night in America'' show is sit on a Rockefeller Center viewing room with nine high-def TVs and try to monitor as many games as we can. It's frenetic but fun.
It's easier to watch Red Zone, because it's one game for one or two or three plays at a time (or two games, because occasionally the screen is split to show two teams driving to score), and you're able to get a flavor of all the games. Now, if there was one game I'd want to watch all the way through, I wouldn't watch Red Zone. But if you're a fan of the league, or if your team has a bye or is playing at night, it's an interesting way to digest the games. I did it for 20 minutes in the first half of Sunday's games, from 1:26 p.m. to 1:46 p.m. Eastern Time. The best way to describe it is to describe what I saw for a 10-minute period:
• Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall scores on an end sweep ...
• Click ... on to Baltimore, where the Ravens take a timeout on third-and-16, so ...
• Click ... on to Philadelphia, where Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Johnson rolls out and throws an incompletion across his body ...
• Click ... over to the Meadowlands, where Ahmad Bradshaw prances through the Oakland defense for a touchdown ...
• Click ... back to Philly. Another Johnson incompletion, driving in Eagles territory ...
• Click ... down to Baltimore, where Joe Flacco misreads his wideout downfield and throws a pick to Bengals corner Johnathan Joseph ...
• Click ... over to frigid Kansas City, where Tashard Choice runs through a couple of Chiefs ...
• Click ... back east to Charlotte. After a DeAngelo Williams run, Albert Haynesworth is left in pain on the grass, looking injured. They stay with that picture for a few seconds, then ...
• Click ... up to Buffalo, where running back Jerome Harrison of the Browns is stoned by the Bills ...
• Click ... back to Kansas City. Tony Romo leads Patrick Crayton perfectly on a quick slant. Cowboys are driving ...
• Click ... Uh-oh. Up to Detroit. Daunte Culpepper throws deep for Calvin Johnson, and Johnson comes up lame, limping and holding the area near his groin. Not good for the Lions. The picture stays at Ford Field long enough to show Johnson struggling to get to the sideline, then being worked on by the training staff. That could be a devastating blow for the Lions ...
• Click ... Back to Baltimore. Carson Palmer fades back to throw and, oh no, the wide-angle replay is being shown because this play was not caught live. Ed Reed lays in wait long enough to jump the route and pick off the pass and run it back for a touchdown.
That's 10 minutes, maybe 12. Fairly mesmerizing. For the $7 or so a month it costs, it's money I'd spend.
Several of you were critical of me mostly ignoring the Falcons' resounding win in San Francisco, and that's fair. Why, a couple of you wondered, would I write so much about Michael Crabtree and so little about Atlanta? There are a couple of reasons.
One: I can't spend thoughtful time examining the whys and wherefores of 13 games each week. I try to pick out two or three or four storylines from the games, and maybe one or two from off the field, and go into some depth on them in the top of my column. Then I try to scattershoot for the rest of the column. Sometimes I miss, or underplay, stories many of you think I should cover. And maybe I should. But I'm also occupied with work at NBC on Sunday.
Two: At NBC, my duties put me mostly on the phone from about 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., talking to players and coaches and GMs from the early games so I can report on the news of the day on Football Night in America, and then I'm on the set rehearsing prior to 7. So most of the late games I don't see. If there's a cliffhanger and I can catch part of it, I will. But I don't have access to TiVo or any replays other than the ones I see at NBC, so the fact is I'm going to miss a lot of the good stuff in the late games.
If I could have paid attention to the late games the way I watch the early ones this week, I'd have written more about Matt Ryan/Roddy White, Matt Hasselbeck and the emergence of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and maybe about the late Arizona stop of Houston at the goal line. This week, I thought the Denver-New England game was most notable, so I followed it the best I could, then spoke with Kyle Orton just before he went on with Bob Costas at halftime of our Sunday night game.
As for the notes about Crabtree and the United Football League, I try to take events of the week that have been in the news and advance them. This week, I thought it was newsworthy to report on what Crabtree's role would be with the Niners and when we'd see him play. Re the UFL, it's been a tangential topic around the NFL for the last few months, and I thought a few paragraphs about this new pro league with so many familiar names was in order. That's it.
Many of you write and Tweet about my selection of topics for the column every week, so I thought I'd let you know how, unfortunately, I'm more limited on the late games than I would like to be. But the tradeoff is I'm able to see more of the early games than before I went to work at NBC in 2006. Prior to that, I'd cover a game for the magazine and most often use leftover stuff from that game to lead my column. Even though I miss on a few worthy topics every week, I'm hitting more topics than I used to.
Taunting/Heckling/Fawning Opportunity of the Week
I'll be doing a signing of my "Monday Morning Quarterback'' book Thursday night in Ridgewood, N.J., at BookEnds from 7-9 p.m. I'll sign, I'll pose, I'll answer hecklers ... come one, come all.
Now onto your e-mail:
• THE SHANAHAN QUESTION. From Todd Brown of Madison, Wis.: "Does Josh McDaniels' success in Denver without Jay Cutler and a revitalized Denver defense lessen Mike Shanahan's appeal in any way to teams looking for a new coach in 2010? Shanahan has had success, but it it's been 11 years and a quarterback named John Elway ago since Shanahan's career reached its peak.''
Excellent question, and if I were an owner, it's a question I'd be asking when I interview him after the season. The question won't be so much about offense, because I think Shanahan would have had one of the best offenses in football had he stayed in Denver. It's the maddening trend of not being able to get the defense right with any consistency, year after year. I'd be asking: What's your defensive plan, and how can I be sure that Bob Slowik (Shanahan's chosen defense coordinator when he gets a new gig) is the man for the job?
• THE VOLUME-ON-THE-TV QUESTION. From Kevin of Poway, Calif.: The FCC rules are that the commercials cannot be louder than the loudest point of the program they are aired during. However, the program will have peaks and valleys as the volume changes from scene to scene. Thus, the commercials (set at "car chase" level) seem inordinately loud because they have no variance in volume.''
Thanks for your explanation, Kevin, and I'm going to check on that this week. But I don't notice the volume going up as high during TV shows, at any point, that I notice on some commercials. I've got to find a way to make the madness stop.
• WHAT IF WE PUT RUSH AND KEITH ON A SHOW TOGETHER? WOULDN'T THAT BE FUN? From Kevin Green of New Freedom, Pa.: "Why all the fuss about Rush Limbaugh being a part owner in the NFL? But it's OK for Keith Olbermann, who offends conservatives as much as Limbaugh offends liberals, to be a part of the NFL on Sunday night.''
The answer to this could be an epistle, but there's a difference between owning a team and commenting on a team. As someone who's in the studio with Olbermann every week, I can tell you that the concentration for him is totally on football and analysis and funny football lines (not funny political lines) when he does the highlights.
• RE DEION SANDERS' CONFLICT OF INTEREST ... From Nicole of Chicago: "And this is different than Peter King how exactly? Replace "training with" and put in "answers his calls / texts" and we have the same situation. How can we trust what Peter King says -- is he overpraising players who return his texts and calls? Come on Peter, that's an incredibly poor shot you took at Sanders without any evidence that he has been anything but professional in his work on-air.''
I'm calling it the way I see it, Nicole. And when I hear Sanders talk about guys I know he loves, there is never heard a discouraging word. You can make the same point about me, but I think you could find a negative thing or two I've said over the years about the players and coaches I respect, as I did with Brett Favre this summer.
• AND ALSO RE DEION ... From John Connor of Little Rock, Ark.: "Great point about Deion Sanders. You have to wonder if his "kids" will start thinking twice about their relationship with him now that he has negatively impacted two nascent careers. I've always respected his impact as a player but always thought his mouth would eventually get him in trouble.''
I don't blame Sanders for trying to help players. That's his nature. It's fine. What I mind is thinking I'm not going to hear legitimate criticism about the scores of players he's close to in the league.