Monday, October 8, 2007

Patriots Pursue Perfection; Browns Can't Win Two in a Row

On the "X-Files," Fox Mulder's credo was "I want to believe." Cleveland Browns fans completely understand the mixture of hope and desperation that animates those four words. This season, the Browns have alternated wins and losses each week. Granted, that is an improvement over the steady diet of losses that the team has been shoving down its fans' throats for years but it is amazing that the team has not managed to win even two games in a row in more than three seasons. Since Cleveland beat Baltimore last week that meant that the Browns were "due" to lose this week--and having to travel to New England to face the powerful Patriots all but guaranteed another Browns defeat. Sure enough, the Patriots cruised to a 20-0 first half lead en route to a 34-17 victory. The Browns twice got within 10 points in the second half, trailing 20-10 and then 27-17, and even became the first team this season to hold the Patriots scoreless for an entire quarter (the third quarter) but no matter how you spin it, look at it or add it up it still amounts to nothing more than another entry in the right hand column of the standings, making the Browns 2-3 for the season.

In light of the Browns' wins over division rivals Baltimore and Cincinnati, it has become a popular notion in some quarters to suggest that the Browns have turned the corner and are on the road to respectability. CBS' Dan Dierdorf noted during the Patriots-Browns telecast that the Browns were one last second field goal away from being 3-1 coming into the Patriots game and several other announcers on various networks alluded to the Browns being a pleasant surprise this year. I'm more inclined to agree with Bill Parcells' simple dictum: you are what your record says you are. The record says that the Browns are a sub.-500 team, which is quite familiar territory since the team's rebirth in 1999. There is no doubt that General Manager Phil Savage has done a good job of upgrading the team's talent level, adding productive players such as Braylon Edwards, Kamerion Wimbley, Jamal Lewis and this year's first round pick, Joe Thomas. Brady Quinn may very well be a franchise quarterback in the making. Still, it does not matter if you have all the talent in the world if that talent does not produce victories. I have mentioned several times that Hall of Famer Bill Walsh said that it should only take three years to turn a team into a contender, so rather than praising the Browns for showing some signs of life in the third year of the Savage/Romeo Crennel era the standard should be set a little higher; the Browns should be expected to be a better than .500 team this year. Yes, the Patriots may go 16-0 and they may win the Super Bowl; that makes it easy to settle for so-called "moral victories" like holding New England scoreless for one quarter or keeping the game closer than New England's previous opponents did--but only losers allow themselves to think that way for even one second. If you doubt that, consider some of the comments New England Coach Bill Belichick made after this game. Remember, his team won the game.

"It's good to win. It's always good to win and be 5-0. I don't think that was either team's best game out there today, but in the end we were able to make a few more plays. We'll take it and move on to Dallas. It was a physical game. There was a lot of hard hitting out there. I just don't think on our end it was executed the way we are capable of. But, as I said, in the end we made enough plays, and that was good, but we left some out there too. I think we just have to do a better job all the way around in all three areas of the game, and the coaching, and I think we can play better than that."

In response to a question about how his team's preparation changed because New England had a short week (after winning last Monday night), Belichick replied, "I just think we have to do a better job. I think we can play better than we played. We just didn't play as well as I think we're capable of playing in any phase of the game. We have to do a better job of coaching. When the players don't play well, then that's a reflection of the coaching. I think we just have to do a better job all the way around--long week, short week or any other week."

Look at Belichick's message to his team: we won, but the performance was not acceptable; we can play better and having a short week to prepare is no excuse for the mistakes that we made. Notice that he ultimately held himself accountable for his team's shortcomings. These words came from a coach of a 5-0 team that just won by 17 points, becoming just the fourth team in league history to open a season with five straight wins by at least 17 points. That is the mental approach of a champion; champions relentlessly pursue perfection and they measure themselves not by how well their opposition plays but by how closely they came to achieving their own maximum potential. Belichick knows that his team can play better than it did, so winning by 17 points is pleasant but not entirely satisfactory. If anyone in the Cleveland organization is patting himself on the back for giving the Patriots a good game--which is not even really a true statement anyway--then the Browns will never reach a championship level.

In a post titled "The Difference Between Winners and Champions", I mentioned that great champions like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and Garry Kasparov share the same mindset despite competing in vastly different endeavors. I have also noticed that great champions observe and learn from the techniques and approaches that other great champions use, so it does not surprise me that Belichick is an admirer of Tiger Woods: "I've not met Tiger, but I use him as an example to our team, saying that if the greatest pro athlete of our time works as hard and is as committed to being as good as he is, we can, too," Belichick recently told Golf Digest.

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