Bracket Breakdown, Part I
By Andrew Clayman & Jeff Ellis
This week, The Cleveland Fan is kicking off a new interactive bracket to simultaneously lament and celebrate 45 years of futility in Cleveland sports. "64 Since ‘64" is a head-to-head, six round tournament designed to help recognize the very best Browns, Indians, and Cavs players who took the field or court between 1965 and 2009. Since none of these men were able to raise a trophy in Cleveland during this particular era, it seemed fitting to give them another shot at glory, however relatively meaningless it may be.
Sure, some might call this tournament a desperate search for silver linings. But, in truth, all three of our city's franchises have had a wealth of great players over the past five decades, including hall of famers, record breakers, and champions (once they left town, of course). Some worthy Cleveland sports heroes had to be left out of the tournament, while some probably not-as-worthy stars made the cut. This was mostly for logistical reasons, but nonetheless, apologies to any offended parties.
And now, without further ado, it's time to begin our in-depth breakdown of the 64 Since '64 matchups, featuring the analysis of one of the world's best prognosticators of hypothetical showdowns, Mr. Jeff Ellis. Today, we'll be looking at the first round games in the Orange & Brown Regional section of the brackets. Hey, it's better than reading about the real life Browns and Indians right now, isn't it?
Round 1, Brown & Orange Regional
1 LeBron James vs 16 Tim Couch
AC: Just look at these two faces; one beaming with confidence, borderline arrogance. The other: confused, bewildered, possibly concussed. King James and Tim Couch might seem like polar opposites and an appropriate equivalent to Duke vs Arkansas-Pine Bluff, but at stages of their careers, they were oh so much alike; heralded as high school phenoms and franchise poster boys for the 21st century. One has worked out quite swimmingly so far, the other is Tim Couch.
JE: Yes, all sports saviors in Cleveland are not created equal. One would have thought that a college junior would be better prepared for the pros then a high school kid, but in this case it was not true. Then again, LBJ might have actually had more national TV games then Timmy did at Kentucky, and Couch famously never even used a playbook until Chris Palmer handed him one. Couch's flashes of potential in his rookie year where intermixed with hit after hit after hit. His rookie season is first remembered for the punishment, second for Cade McNown stealing his playmate girlfriend, and then third for his actual play. I know many people who still think he would have made a good QB if not for that punishment, but to me, he was just too raw and mentally fragile to make that leap. When you've been an amazing athlete your whole life and then suddenly struggle for the first time, some guys never recover from that. Meanwhile, LeBron took the transition in stride, improbably making the Cavs the best ticket in town. This is probably the easiest matchup of the tournament. Timmy, we hardly knew you. But hey, you married a playmate, made a few million, and will go down in history as the first face of the team that's called itself the Browns for the past decade. For whatever that's worth.
8 Victor Martinez vs 9 Jerry Sherk
JE: Victor Martinez was a beloved leader of the Indians for 7 years, as skilled with high-five innovations as he was with the bat. Jerry Sherk was a defensive leader for the Browns, perhaps the team's best DT of the past forty years. Most of the readers out there know a lot about Vic since he has played so recently, so let's concentrate on Sherk, who I'd actually give the edge to in this matchup. Sherk was a true force inside, often recording double digit sacks and triple digit tackles up the middle. In a time when defensive tackles weren't known for pass rushing, Sherk ate QBs alive. In 1976, he was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year with 12 sacks and 92 tackles, but I would argue his best season was 1979, when he recorded 12 sacks and 64 tackles in just 7 games before having his season derailed by a severe staph infection. Jerry's gimpy knees forced him into retirement four years later, but he still finished as the Browns all-time sack leader and is still second on that list. I love Victor, but I've got to go with the upset special here and pick Sherk.
AC: Eh, 8 vs 9 is always a push. I have a feeling Victor will walk away with this one, whether he deserves it or not. It's just like Michael Jackson's album sales. We feel an inherent need to honor and reconnect with those who've recently left us. And in truth, Victor was part of the Indians franchise for 13 years, since he was a teenager. We developed him, watched him grow into an All-Star and team leader, and shipped off for some other dude. It's a classic coming of age story.
4 Earnest Byner vs 13 Craig Ehlo
AC: Now this is beautiful. By sheer chance and not an ounce of premeditated silliness, two of Cleveland's most unjustly maligned goats get to square off for a shot at redemption. Okay, so maybe Ehlo doesn't really deserve to even be in this tournament, but take a look at the man's numbers. He was no slouch. In fact, Byner and Ehlo both played 7 fine seasons in Cleveland, always carrying themselves with class and never sporting a "woe is me" attitude. If I could sit down to dinner with just two men, alive or dead... it'd probably be Jim Brown and John Lennon or something. But still, I love these guys.
JE: I guess this match up should be called "The Heartbreaker." Earnest Byner was a 10th round pick out of podunk East Carolina, but he worked his tail off to become a 1,000 yard rusher for the Browns. Craig Ehlo was a third rounder out of Washington State. So, interestingly, both of these guys were drafted in rounds that no longer exist. Of course, the thing they most have in common is their epic posterizations; Ehlo at the hands of His Airness, and Byner at his own hands against Denver. The fact is, it's extremely unfair to remember these guys for those isolated incidents. In "The Fumble" game, Byner had almost 200 total yards and 2 TDs, single handedly, if not sure-handedly, keeping the Browns in the game. For Ehlo it's the same story. Not only did he score 24 points against Jordan and the Bulls that night, but he did it all on a sprained knee. Ehlo was always known as a good defender, but why, Lenny Wilkens, was a guy with a sprained knee defending the most dangerous player in the game at crunch time? So I say let's let Ehlo and Byner off the hook. There is no true loser in this match up.
5 Kenny Lofton vs 12 Eric Metcalf
JE: "Metcalf up the middle" is more than likely the first thing that comes to mind when you hear his name. The second thing is his explosive return skills and athleticism. Meanwhile, Kenny Lofton is remembered for his table setting ability on those great Indians team, along with Web Gem defense every night. During the ‘90s, these two men were likely the best natural athletes in Cleveland. If this was a battle of who was more exciting, I would have to give the advantage to Metcalf, as few things are more exciting then a punt return for a TD. In terms of who was the best player, though, I think Lofton has to be a slam dunk. He was the prototypical center fielder and lead-off hitter for most of his time in Cleveland. As exciting as Metcalf was on special teams, he failed to ever make a huge impact as anything else. He had good years, but never reached that next level.
AC: I'll only disagree with Jeff in that Lofton would win a contest of "excitement," as well. Yes, we all might remember Metcalf's pair of kick return touchdowns against Pittsburgh back in the bygone days when we could actually compete with the Steelers. But Kenny did stuff like that almost every night, whether it was running down a ball at the fence or scoring from second base on a wild pitch (his mad dash by a befuddled Randy Johnson in the 1995 ALCS is still one of my all-time great sports memories). As the speed demons of their respective teams in the early ‘90s, it actually would have been amusing to see these two in a head-to-head sprint during their primes. Sans pads, Eric might have won that one. But in this matchup, I doubt he'll stand a chance.
3 Manny Ramirez vs 14 World B. Free
JE: In our next match-up we have a pair of eccentrics. Manny Ramirez, a player who has played baseball with such ease that some people have questioned his desire and occasionally his mental stability. World B. Free, a man known for his flamboyance and dunks and a nickname that became his legal identity. Free's best seasons were before he came to Cleveland, but he did provide some excitement during the darker days of the Cavs franchise in the early ‘80s. Manny is known for being Manny: a supremely talented player who left the Indians for greener pastures-greener meaning money. Manny is still one of the most feared players in the game and was probably the most talented player from the Indians great run in the late 90's. Space Cadet or not, steroid user and all, it would be hard to vote against a player who did so much in Cleveland during its brightest days.
AC: When Lloyd Bernard Free changed his named to World B., he made himself eternally memorable for probably the wrong reasons. He also set a standard now being followed by bozos like Chad Eight Five, but that's neither here nor there. Fact was, World could ball, and even during his years with the Cavs, he put up excellent numbers, regularly averaging 20+ points per game. He was the best player on a bad team. Manny, meanwhile, was arguably the best player on an extremely good team. While Albert Belle and Jim Thome could match him step for step as feared power hitters, Ramirez quickly proved to be that rare ballplayer who defies streakiness and simply drives in runs as a lifestyle. He is still the Indians all-time leader in slugging percentage and OPS. And that's likely to remain the case for a long time.
6 Clay Matthews vs 11 Andre Thornton
AC: For children of the ‘80s, this is a very tough matchup indeed. These two guys were the veteran rocks of Municipal Stadium at that time, in the line-up everyday and always consistent. Clay certainly played in a lot more meaningful games, and as the Browns' all-time sack king and games played leader, his legacy is a bit easier to pinpoint. Still, don't sleep on Andre. He was a regular 30 HR, 100 RBI man on a team that didn't exactly have a host of table setters. He was also very active and popular in the community. As for Clay, memories of seeing his flowing mane charging at the quarterback were coming back strong during this year's NFL draft, when his son Clay Matthews III was still on the board with the Browns on the clock. I'd love to know if the Browns' current front office even made the connection that a Matthews at LB for the Browns might have been a welcome sight.
JE: Andre Thornton was one of the few bright spots during the sad days of the ‘70s and ‘80s Indians, when most decent players were summarily shipped off after three seasons (kind of like now). During that time period, Thornton was the exception: a player you could actually stay attached to, as he somehow managed to stick with the Tribe for 10 years. Nice for us, a shame for him. Interestingly, during that same time period, and sharing the same field, Clay Matthews was in the midst of his 16 years of service for a then very respectable Cleveland Browns organization. Matthews was my most beloved Brown growing up, thanks in large part to the fact he'd been there so long (his 16 seasons trail only Lou Groza for longevity in team history). His grit and ability to get the QB made him the Browns all time sack leader, too. He was a 4 time Pro Bowler who did it all on defense, and is exactly the type of player the current browns lack. I got to give my vote to Clay. It's part sentimental and partly just the sheer amount of years he played in Cleveland as an essential, productive player.
7 Mike Pruitt vs 10 Greg Pruitt
JE: It is now Pruitt time. I must say I have to yet to encounter a Pruitt in my life, so it makes me wonder the odds of two players with the name, at the same position, playing at the same time for one team. Mike Pruitt was a high pick out of Purdue and Greg a late second rounder from Oklahoma. Both were great receivers out of the backfield, but Greg has a slight advantage for also having amazing return skills, ranking 1st all time in team history for both punt and kickoff return average. Greg also managed to get his own NFL rule, banning tear away jerseys. Greg would often wear these jerseys to give him an extra advantage when defenders would try and pull him down. Both Pruitts were great backs for the Browns, but I have to give the advantage to Greg Pruitt, who had more rushing yards, Pro Bowls, an added skill (returner), and a custom rule change.
AC: Hey, what do you know? Another totally random coincidence in the seeding process! The two pronged Pruitt attack kind of defined the Browns offense in the late ‘70s, and everybody had their favorite. I'm inclined to throw my support to Mike, thanks to his local car dealership and obvious business savvy. But after being reminded that this tournament is meant to reward the more accomplished Cleveland sports performers, Greg probably does emerge with the slight edge (4 Pro Bowls to Mike's 2). However, Mike actually had more 1,000 yard rushing seasons in Cleveland than Greg, and Greg went on to win a Super Bowl with Oakland, which means the honor of advancing in this tournament would likely be less meaningful to him. This could be one of the closer votes in the whole bracket.
2 Ozzie Newsome vs 15 Buddy Bell
JE: So in this match-up we have two players who might be better known these days for their management jobs. Newsome was a fantastic player for one franchise his whole career, and has been a fantastic GM for that same single franchise, albeit a bastardized, evil version of it. Buddy Bell was a well-liked journeyman player who performed admirably, much like his various managerial stints. Bell does get a bonus in this discussion because his progeny have also helped out the Indians. Buddy was a solid 3B better known for defense then his offense. In the end, the impact of an Ozzie Newsome is too great to look past. There were great tight ends before and during his career (Kellen Winslow Sr. being an example), but Ozzie was truly a player who changed his position. Until the mid ‘90s, he held every TE record out there. Now, the position has been redefined as a key to most offensive schemes, thanks to what Newsome brought to the role. There are dozens of great pass catching tight ends in today's game, but Ozzie was truly ahead of his time. If there is any reason for an upset, it would just be spiteful votes against the guy who helped the purple team in Baltimore win a Super Bowl. Not exactly fair.
AC: Obviously, this is a no-contest matchup that's more of a psychological study than a sports related one. Buddy Bell was always a very popular player during his years with the Tribe in the ‘70s. Ozzie was even more popular as the Browns' sure-handed weapon throughout the ‘80s. However, despite Buddy managing division rivals like Detroit and Kansas City, nobody in Cleveland really has any ill will toward him at all. As for Newsome, his decision to stick by Art Modell and move up the front office ranks in Baltimore was seen as an affront by some fans. Does this mean you would vote for an average ballplayer over a Hall of Fame, game changing tight end? For the sake of the integrity of this tournament, I hope not.
We'll be back soon to break down the next regional as we slowly move through the first round on the way to determining the top players of the title drought era.
To cast your first round votes, go to the bracket matchups here.