Thomas Dimitroff’s Greatest Draft Blunder Retires

Thomas-and-Smitty Peria Jerry—whose first name will forever be pronounced in Atlanta as “pariah”—is retiring from football after five meh-to-blech seasons in the NFL. The Falcons chose the Ole Miss product with the 24th pick in the 2009 draft, despite his missing the first month of his senior year due to knee surgery for a torn meniscus. They also ignored the fact that he’d be turning 25 before his first pro season ever began.

His college injury would turn out to be predictive of his introduction to the Falcons. Less than a month after being drafted, he hurt the same knee in a minicamp. The same knee would give out two games into the 2009 season. In all, he’d play in 64 games in five years—mostly as a rotational player and a second fiddle to Corey Peters, who was drafted two rounds later in 2010.

Now, if only to make myself feel worse, here is a list of Pro Bowlers who were drafted after Jerry in 2009: Clay Matthews, Jairus Byrd, Max Unger, LeSean McCoy, William Moore, Louis Vasquez, Mike Wallace, Henry Melton, Johnny Knox, Thomas Morstead.

The glass half-full POV here is that Moore, the Falcons second round pick, can compensate for the blunder that was Jerry. The glass half-empty is that we could have had both Matthews and Moore. (The Packers, instead, were the team that landed two future Pro Bowlers, having picked B.J. Raji ahead of Matthews.)

By the way, Jerry is not Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff’s biggest personnel blunder. That’s still the free agent signing of Ray Edwards.


Look Homeward, ATLien

The folks over at Elite Daily took the LeBron James coming home-meme a few steps further and offered up what each NBA team would look like if its starting lineup were made up of all locally grown products. (They skipped Denver, San Antonio, and Utah, which have not produced enough players to make a starting five.)

The hometown Hawks have one proven All-NBA player (Dwight Howard), one perpetually raw veteran (Josh Smith), a promising big (Derrick Favors), a raw combo guard (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope), and a journeyman role player (Jodie Meeks). All told, I’m not sure I’d go to battle with this lineup over Teague, Sefolosha, Korver, Millsap, and Horford. I think the cunning and high NBA IQ of the true Hawks lineup is probably an advantage of an all-area squad. (The idea of JSmoove being a Hawk again alone might be an immediate dealbreaker for my ability to enjoy this thought experiment.)

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But it got me thinking: Do players whose roots go back to Atlanta want to come home? In 2012, as Dwight Howard readied to actually leave Orlando once and for all, Atlanta seemed to be in the running. Josh Smith, his old AAU teammate on the Atlanta Celtics, was a Hawk. D12 had been the best man at Smoove’s wedding in 2010. But he couldn’t resist the pull of L.A., and the Hawks struck out. Even Smith eventually left for Detroit in the summer of 2013—though many fans were ready to see him and his quizzical shot selection skip town (as was the new front office).

Then comes this from Grantland’s Zach Lowe, who pronounced the Hawks one of the 2014 free agency season’s losers last week:

No one will take Atlanta’s money, despite a good core of players, a very good coaching staff, and an innovative style of play Mike Budenholzer has only just begun installing. Some stars won’t even meet with them. I almost wanted to hug Budenholzer when I saw him in Vegas. The most common theory among insiders for Atlanta’s lack of appeal is that players see the Hawks as a dull franchise with a dead crowd and a limited postseason history that almost always involves NBA TV.

That will turn around at some point, but just about everyone Atlanta has approached so far rebuffed the Hawks’ invitation to get in on the ground floor.

It’s not surprising that a team that has never even been to the Eastern Conference Finals is having trouble luring top tier, or even second tier free agents like Luol Deng, who spurned them for the suddenly rebuilding Heat. But what makes it at least a little shocking is that, like L.A. and New York, Atlanta is a playground-type city for a lot of the NBA’s premier personalities. NBA veteran (and former Fab 5er) Jalen Rose placed Atlanta atop his favorite cities in America list, saying that even in the off-season players will still kick it in the A.

But the A and the Hawks are two different things. According to a recent post on the Houston Chronicle‘s Ultimate Rockets blog, Dwight Howard loves the city, but “he would rather stay away” from playing for the team he cheered for growing up.


Well, That Was a Thing that Happened

LBJ

The day after “The Decision,” almost exactly four years ago, we went to my wife’s friend’s house for lunch. Her husband is a sports guy, and, Cleveland fans being a novelty in New Jersey, I knew I was going to have to talk about it. And talk and talk and talk. I certainly got sick of explaining what it’s like to be a Cleveland fan in those days—some of the ideas I’ve laid out here—and how this thing, much as it sucked, kind of fit. It made sense in the frame of a cosmic self-pity.

So this past Saturday, I went out for bagels at home in Brooklyn wearing my Cavs hat, as I’ve done here and there for a couple of weeks, since it appeared on the top of the pile in the closet. It’s a blue and orange late-80s throwback, from the last time the Cavs were remotely relevant pre-LBJ. If you don’t remember those teams, they were basically that era’s version of today’s Pacers—a balanced, well-oiled regular season machine undone in the playoffs by a transcendent talent (ask Craig Ehlo about that). A guy at the bagel place started up, and the talking began again. Different tone this time, of course—whether they should give up Wiggins for Love—but the same curiosity about what is going on inside the head of a Cavs fan. I can’t speak for all of us, especially people actually in Cleveland, who I’m sure experienced these ups and downs differently than a person like me. You see, I left Cleveland, too. And unlike Lebron, I have no intention of going back (outside of visiting my parents and taking my son to Cedar Point when he’s old enough to appreciate The Gemini). But I can speak for myself about what it’s like to be on the fringes of the most unusual sports narrative of recent decades.

All that talking four years ago did help me eventually articulate what I thought hurt so much about The Decision for a Cleveland fan. And the intervening four years—miserable basketball and management and bizarre, probability-vortex luck—helped me get over it. Even then, I couldn’t really blame the man. That 2010 Cleveland team was crap and had little capacity to improve (despite, according to sources now, LBJ’s best recruiting efforts). As I’m sure all now realize, the pain of the The Decisionwas a product of tone-deafness, though describing it that way is a bit of an understatement. He was supposed to be The One—both hometown boy and the best in the world. We hoped that he “got it,” that he could realize that he somehow meant more to the city than putting a round ball in a hoop. This idea, of what sports means to Cleveland, was best articulated in Wright Thompson’s Believeland Outside the Lines piece for ESPN—to this day the single best piece of sportswriting about Cleveland I’ve ever read. The hangover of its peak, as a hub of early-century manufacturing, came in the 1970s—The Mistake by the Lake. The city’s recovered from that, with ups and downs along the way, but it has never stopped bleeding away the trappings of urban significance. Its status as a three-sport town, despite a population smaller than Jacksonville, Albuquerque, Omaha, and Tulsa, was a callback to its glory days, one of the things that kept Cleveland from just fading away. We mustn’t forget the art museum, symphony, universities, hospitals, etc., but those don’t nearly have the hold, domestically or globally, of being one of the 12 American cities with teams from all three major sports—a club so excusive that it does not count Los Angeles, Dallas, and San Francisco as members. And that is why sports figures so large in Cleveland despite decades of failure—it makes the city matter. LBJ missed this idea in the form, if not the content, of The Decision, and this is why some Cleveland people on my Facebook feed are confused, ambivalent, or bitter about the Cavaliers signing the best basketball player alive. His opting out of being The One was more than a sports decision, but touched some nerve in the Midwestern lizard-brain—one connected to the same pathways as survival, significance, identity. For that reason, people will boo him when he next tosses the chalk at Quicken Loans Arena. Make no mistake.

Whatever disappointment (vitriol?) I had ended very cleanly when I read Scott Raab’s The Whore of Akron. I never put down a book unfinished, but damn I hated that book. Simply put, Raab is a horrible shit, and to turn to a horrible shit looking for some clarity is to go to a very dark, smelly place. This book was such an act of self-loathing, of projection of self-loathing, that I needed a shower after I read it. It was too much, too hopeless, too oppressive, too icky. Hope is embedded in Cleveland’s character. Talk about tone-deaf. All that was left was residue: defeating and defeatist, consuming, silly. (I also credit the excellent and dark movie Big Fan with helping me put this into perspective a little bit—while I make the argument that sports can be more than trivial, the movie’s portrayal of insane, blinding over-emotional fandom is healthy to watch when you’re worried that you care too much.) I’m half-inclined to read The Whore of Akron again, but I simply don’t want to spend one more second in Raab’s pestilential presence.

If I had gotten over LBJ’s departure, and in some glancing way begun to appreciate just how damned good he had become (where was that post game in Cleveland?), prior to all this I still had some ambivalence about the idea of him coming back. Though I’m a naturally pretty cynical person, Cleveland sports makes me want to be an optimist. I figured that if LBJ had decided he wouldn’t be The One, someone else would and it would still be sweet. Kyrie didn’t seem to be wearing the mantle very well, but then there was Wiggins. Hoyer, Manziel, Gordon, Brantley, Kluber? Outlook hazy.

Chagrin Falls, man. The One became the greatest villain since Art Modell and then, improbably, became The One again. If someone had sat me down and asked me to specify a set of conditions under which I would welcome LBJ back to Cleveland, the letter he dictated to Lee Jenkins kind of nailed it. Not gonna lie, I teared up a bit when I read it on the subway. Cynically: it was a beautiful piece of PR. But then again: He does get it! He sees now why he mattered so much. (Is anyone else uncomfortable with how many old, white sportswriters are describing that letter as “mature”?) There’s that silly secret sunniness that lies in the heart of every Cleveland sports fan except the most embittered. I’ve decided I do not have mixed feelings about Lebron’s return. The first thing atlswami texted me after “I’m Coming Home” (is that how it will be remembered?) was that he wasn’t happy for me, but he was happy for my son. Now, my sports inheritance to him maybe won’t be so poisonous. Me, I’m happy for Cleveland. They— not “we”—have got another shot. And, weirdly, the entire sports world, minus the handful of sports fans in Miami and those in Cleveland who hold a grudge, seems to have a smile on its face. Right now, the manager of the Indians, the quarterback of the Browns, and the greatest Cavalier of all time are all homegrown. It’s a nifty moment.

I had this theory—atlswami will attest to it—that LBJ had voluntarily become a Judas, both so he could get some titles and remove that withering and surely tiring speculation, and so that the Cavs could tank the shit out of it and rebuild so he could come back to something promising. It was trying to impose a story on something I didn’t like, but that is, functionally at least, what happened. Think for a second about all the little things that even made this a possible outcome. The #1 picks—three in four years (on top of the one that put LBJ in Cleveland in the first place). The Mike Brown debacle, then picking such a strange and kind of perfect replacement in David Blatt (who I am super-bullish on). You have Dwyane Wade’s balky knees, Riley not wanting to keep Mike Miller around. The fact that Varejao, a LBJ favorite, managed to get hurt enough to prevent a trade that seemed inevitable. Actually maintaining the cap space for what seemed like a pipe dream. Even before LBJ decided to sign, I feel like the usual Cleveland optimism was taking hold. A lot of people love the coaching hires. Wiggins is the right piece at the right time. There is this idea that Irving and Waiters will figure something out and aspire to be Paul and Wade instead of Marbury and Francis. Hell, even Anthony Bennett suddenly seems promising.

The cynical, including Deadspin’s Drew Magary, figure that the latest move is simply a replay of 2010, except with a much more polished turd (Magary also wrote this, this, and this about LBJ). Basketball-wise, it is. In 2010, LBJ left an inadequate team built around and dedicated to him for a better one, alongside two perennial all-stars. In 2014, he left an inadequate team built around and dedicated to him for . . . well, not a better team exactly, but one with much, much better prospects over the next five years or so. A team so loaded with assets that a few smart decisions and a little professional development could turn it into the dynasty that the Heat, with their reliance on two men, never really had a shot at becoming.

Plus, he gets a different role than he had in Miami (and the first time in Cleveland), where he was forced to be a workhorse—picking up all the slack from resting Wade—and a conductor. He was good at it, but it never seemed his nature. He’ll never be like Jordan and there’s nothing wrong with that. He wants to be liked too much, he wants to pass too much. He’s not, in a word, maniacal. It seems like he’s finally sorted that out about himself and now he has a chance to be a white hat, to pass at the end of games without apology. Perhaps he wants to prove that he’s the best ever at making others better. More sunniness.

He might also make Cleveland a destination for other players. It’s not something he was really able to accomplish before—see the Windhorst piece linked earlier—but that could be different now. And this will be the subject of the talk until the season starts—thanks, bagel guy. Mike Miller, Ray Allen, etc., would be nice for continuity and to make sure that the locker-room culture really changes for good. Kevin Love clearly the most obvious, intriguing, and complementary option. How I would love to get him without giving up Wiggins, who seems like the perfect mentee for LBJ. That said, Wiggins is potential and Love is now and only 25. But then again, Wiggins is cheap and Love would mean three huge contracts and little flexibility in case of injury. There’s a few other pieces the team needs—a backup point guard, a defensive big man (Jason Collins would be a feel-good addition for a year and I’m good with Ekpe Udoh and Emeka Okafor for reasons that aren’t clear to me), and shooters (if Miller and Allen are out). The point here is that the Cavs are at a clear inflection point—they either come up smaller than ever before or become the dynasty that Cleveland hasn’t had since Otto Graham and Jim Brown. Somehow it doesn’t feel like there’s an in between. Be bold and be wise, my friends.


Big or Small?

Big or Small?

It’s going to be a very, very long offseason.


Trade Gonzo. Fire Smitty. Restructure Matty Ice.

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Sad to say Falcons fans, but Tony’s only road left to the Super Bowl starts in KC.

The Falcons’ 2013 season is officially grounded. Injuries to key members on both sides of the ball (Julio Jones, Sam Baker, and Mike Johnson on the offense, and Sean Weatherspoon and Kroy Biermann on the D) revealed how fragile the team really is. This is a group that when healthy can compete for the playoffs, but it’s not a team that enjoys a lot of depth and shows resilience—a favorite term of Mike Smith’s (though, to my great annoyance, he often uses the word “resiliency”).

Here’s the current assessment, as I see it. The offensive line as it’s currently constituted is simply not an NFL caliber line. See the amount of pressure Matt Ryan faced on Sunday against a very good Arizona Cardinals front seven. See the total of 27 yards rushing gained in four quarters of football, even with Steven Jackson back in the lineup. Next, the Falcons defense is simply not up to snuff either. The players on defense are too prone to missing assignments, taking bad angles, and not getting enough of a pass rush to keep opposing QBs from finding receivers camped out in the holes left by its zone coverage. In order to go to battle with the defense the Falcons fielded on Sunday, they needed an offense capable of scoring more than 30 points. They have managed twice all season (both of their wins).

Let’s forget 2013. This was a team that was built to win now (as evidence by the signing of aging superstars Tony Gonzalez, Osi Umenyiora, and Steven Jackson). That doesn’t appear to be happening, so what can the Falcons do going forward?

1) Trade Tony Gonzalez. There’s some team that is competing for the playoffs out there that can use Tony Gonzalez. First option is the Kansas City Chiefs. They have a relatively young team with Pro Bowlers on both sides of the ball. Really the major hole in their arsenal is at tight end, though an argument could be made that their receiving corps is pretty lackluster. This makes for a nice story—Gonzo taking one last crack at a Super Bowl run with the team he’ll soon represent in Canton. Give us a third round pick, and we’ll return your prodigal son.

Another option might be the New England Patriots who with Gonzo could, in the second half of the season, redeploy the two tight end packages they love so much. Problem here is that Bill Belichick would probably try to fleece us in any prospective deal. This isn’t a great or even good option.

2) Fire Mike Smith. Jim Leyland just abdicated the bench for the Detroit Tigers because he’d failed to get his team over the hump two seasons in a row, despite a pitching staff with three aces and a power pocket in his lineup that employed three fearsome sluggers. Save his captaining of the first pre-fire sale Florida Marlins ship, Leyland has proven himself to be a leader who can be counted on to put out a quality product but not necessarily a champion.

I think Mike Smith is a fantastic leader who has made the Falcons arguably the best prepared team in football from week to week. But over and over again, his teams have shown an inability to make meaningful changes during a game. And, this week, in a game they pretty much had to win, they uncharacteristically committed 10 penalties, including a couple third quarter false starts at a really critical juncture. Mike Smith is a program saver. He can take a chronically underachieving team and make them stronger. He can instill a locker room with good values and encourage the play of a brand of careful, if a little nervous, football. I’m convinced that if he were hired by the Oakland Raiders or Minnesota Vikings, he could transform them into regular playoff contenders.

But, like Dan Reeves before him, he doesn’t have the instinct to step on another team’s throat when he’s up. In fact, before 2013, his pattern was getting his teams to jump out to big leads and then holding on for dear life while the opposing side started to figure out how to get back in the game. Further, when his frontline players get hurt, he doesn’t have the fire that inspires the next man up. (See, for instance, the skeleton crew of no-names that Belichick brought into the Georgia Dome to beat the Falcons a few weeks ago.) Smitty from ever being a championship coach. That’s just my opinion.

3) Restructure Matt Ryan’s contract. It should be clear to everyone right now that the Falcons have too many holes to become a consistently good team that can win games in multiple ways beginning in 2014. That point is important: winning games in multiple ways. At the moment, there is one formula: Outscoring the opponent. And, as the record shows, that’s not happening. The offensive line has maybe two serviceable cogs, Peter Konz at center and Sam Baker, provided he’s got a sparkling clean bill of health and can play right instead of left tackle. If we continue at the current pace, the Falcons should be able to use a high first round draft pick on a left tackle for the future. Improving the offensive line will not only protect our investment in Matt Ryan but will also open holes that Jacquizz Rodgers and a soon-to-be-drafted feature back (my dream would be Georgia tailback Todd Gurley) will be able to exploit.

The problem is that one offensive lineman and a third round pick spent on a running back won’t be enough. On defense, we have three players at the moment who project to make a Pro Bowl in the future: Biermann, safety William Moore, and Weatherspoon. (Do not get me started on what I think about Thomas DeCoud.) Weatherspoon, however, has shown a remarkable inability to stay on the field. This is a problem that plagues many of GM Thomas Dimitroff’s first round picks—Peria Jerry, Baker, and Jones (so basically all but Matt Ryan and 2013 pick Desmond Trufant, who has only played in seven games). With defensive leaders Umenyiora, Jonathan Babineaux, and Asante Samuel all rumbling toward retirement, replacements are needed at all levels of the defense, most especially at linebacker and along the entire defensive line. That is a lot more than one draft worth of acquisitions.

To be competitive in the short term, the Falcons will need to do some work through free agency. But future money is short because Matt Ryan’s contract is going to eat into it big time. His cap number in 2013 was only $9.6 million. Next year, it will be $17.5 million. In 2015, it will be $19.5 million. It tops out at $23.75 million in 2016 before heading back toward not earth but maybe earth’s orbit. If the Falcons want to win. If the Falcons want to justify the ridiculous new stadium they’re planning to build, the Matural needs to be more realistic about his pay-scale. He’s being paid like a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, and, if you check the records, he isn’t one. And, frankly, his own contract looks to be one of the biggest obstacles to winning one.


Jason Campbell to the Rescue? Really?

And so the hope of the Brian Hoyer era fades into oblivion. BWeed is straight terrible. To whit:

– 149 yards

– 42 pass attempts

– 3.5 yards per attempt

3.5! We can’t blame this one on current management–they hate him too. He was drafted by Heckert et al., who had been surprisingly strong in the draft up until their last one, when they gave us the TRich-BWeed debacle.

nfl_a_weeden_gb2_576x324

Is that a junebug?

Not to say that I’m bitter, but I’m really starting to hate the Colts. They get their decade-plus of Manning, he gets hurt at just the right moment for them to tank worse than the Browns, and then they fall ass-over-tea-kettle into Andrew Luck, who is a beast. Dammit. Much as Bernie Kosar is still beloved in Cleveland, and even though Brian Sipe won an MVP, Cleveland hasn’t seen a good quarterback, an elite quarterback, since Otto Graham hung ‘em up in 1955. The Colts get two just like that. Packers, too.

Alas, 3-13 is probably not bad enough this year for a draft jackpot. Again. Way to go, Hoyer.


Mmmm … Delicious Hat!

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Boy, Giambi went from ‘roid poster boy to beloved elder statesman and future manager quick, didn’t he?

No team has won 10 straight games to finish a season since 1971. Tribe just did it to lock in home for the wildcard game (and finish just a game back of the Tigers). Needed every one. Win or lose Wednesday, this was a cool season and I like this team. They have the bonhomie of those “idiot” Red Sox teams, without the pervasive douchiness. Hard-working flavor for a hard-working town. Go Tribe! You’ve already come up big. Now go get a little more gravy.

Last week, while the Browns were looking rather sharp in the first game of the Brian Hoyer tank-a-thon (so it seemed at the time), atlswami texted me: “I’m enjoying your karmic comeuppance for bailing on your team,” referring to my spite-add of the opposing defense in fantasy. Dood–all part of the plan. Some national writers talking about them being legit good.

And Hoyer. The mayor.  Look, I grew up playing Browns QB in the backyard too, counting down before lofting a dead duck in the air and running over to catch it myself, and the spinning the ball on the ground while I did the cabbage patch. In fact, my cousins lived in North Olmsted, where Hoyer grew up, and we did this little act in their yard too. So he’s going to win a lot of hearts. Let’s hope he learned a lot from Tom Brady and see how this goes.

How many games do the Browns have to win before I actually have to eat my hat? Can I wash it first?

This is back when it was new. It's not new any more.

This is back when it was new. It’s not new any more.


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