Should the Cleveland Browns sign ‘Problem Players’?

KANSAS CITY, MO - DECEMBER 27: Johnny Manziel #2 of the Cleveland Browns fights his way out of a tackle attempt from Derrick Johnson #56 of the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium during the fourth quarter of the game on December 27, 2015 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MO - DECEMBER 27: Johnny Manziel #2 of the Cleveland Browns fights his way out of a tackle attempt from Derrick Johnson #56 of the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium during the fourth quarter of the game on December 27, 2015 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images) /

An interesting question is whether the Cleveland Browns, or any NFL team should invest in “problem players” on their rosters

An interesting question is whether the Cleveland Browns, or any NFL team, should invest in “problem players.” Currently, Kareem Hunt is available, and the Steelers are known to be willing to take a few first-round draft picks off your hands if you would like the services of Le’Veon Bell or Antonio Brown.  Should John Dorsey make a move on one or more of these players?

In recent history, the Browns have been eager to sign up for problem players, and willing to invest valuable resources in them.  For example, Johnny Manziel cost a number one draft pick, and Josh Gordon was obtained for a second round pick.

Coach Sam Rutigliano and Dr. Gregory Collins of the Cleveland Clinic, along with player advisors Calvin Hill and Paul Warfield,  pioneered drug and alcohol rehabilitation with their “Inner Circle” program, which was attended by about a dozen Browns players.

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The Browns’ program was the first of its kind and won several awards from the medical community as well as the football community.  Dr. Collins suggested that Rutigliano should go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he is certainly right. Some players saved touchdowns, but Rutigliano saved lives.

Sadly, those lessons seem to have been forgotten, as the Browns seem to have lapsed into severe co-dependency for several years. Co-dependency can be loosely defined as a psychological state of mind in which the employer or family member are compelled to participate in the addiction process. That fits the behavior of the Browns, does it not?

Manziel is a classic case. Prior to the draft, pictures emerged of Manziel which appeared to show him snorting a white powder. Did that concern the Browns? Not in the least. Buoyed by the endorsement of a homeless man, the Browns made the insane decision to trade up for Manziel, much to the joy of owner Jimmy Haslam III. Manziel had the excuse that he was high as a kite, but what was the excuse for the Browns, who were supposedly sane?

Manziel went through rehab the next summer but then fell off the wagon. Here again, it did not matter to the team, and coach Mike Pettine was ordered to promote the talented but troubled kid to first string. Alcoholic? Addict? Just rub some dirt on it, and you’ll be fine, kid. That is insane. Rule number one is that addicts need professional help — that’s why they are addicts. If it were so easy to self-cure this condition, there wouldn’t be any addicts.

John Dorsey drafted Antonio Callaway, who was regarded as one the most talented receivers in the draft, but he waited until the fourth round, rather than drafting him in the first round according to his talent. That seems like a more balanced approach. We could say that in the Browns draft model, evidence of an addictive personality is worth about three rounds.

Part of the problem with co-dependency is a pathological desire to reward bad behavior. In the case of Callaway, Hue Jackson and Todd Haley decided to “punish” Callaway for being out of shape, by giving him more play time. That is insane behavior.

Similarly, after Gordon missed most of training camp, he was rewarded with extra playing time immediately. That seemed to be mainly Haley’s doing, however,  as Hue grumbled about the playing time issue.

Look, it’s pretty simple. If the player is doing well, play him a little more. If he’s screwing up, bench him, fine him or do something to him he won’t like (100-yard gassers seem like an effective learning aid). But if you cut the guy from the team, you have failed. That’s the football equivalent of the Death Penalty. You can’t give the max penalty for every small offense or failure is assured. That is how a 0-16 team is built.

“All or nothing” is another characteristic of co-dependent insanity. It is necessary to allow the addict to experience the negative consequences of bad decisions. The stance the Browns reportedly took with Josh Gordon was to give him “one last chance” and to threaten him with getting cut for the smallest transgression.

Maybe that sounds good like they got tough with him. But in reality, what they did was to lower the bar so that any small transgression would result in banishment from the team. So that’s what happened. If you think about it, it was inevitable.

It might be argued that the Browns were justified on the grounds that Gordon has since relapsed and lost his eligibility. That is certainly true but on the other hand, he had over 700 receiving yards before that happened.

Note also that the NFL greatly favors the team that has the contract rights for a suspended player. They do not have to pay on the contract, and it does not count toward the salary cap, and it does not cost a roster space. The health and well-being of the player should be the first priority, but nothing bad happens to the team if a transgression occurs. It’s just a question whether the team is psychologically strong enough to put up with the guy, and whether there is football value there.

As a young man, the present author used to work with troubled individuals at the Salvation Army. Dope fiends and even a convicted murderer or two were among the clientele. America is the Land of the Second Chance. It is considered normal and just to allow troubled people to work their way back into society. However, it is kind of nutty to have them immediately installed as the highest paid people in the organization.

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So yes, if the NFL is willing to reinstate a guy like Kareem Hunt, it might make sense to offer a guy like him a contract as a backup player. You have to have a functioning program along the lines of the Inner Circle, however, or it is not going to work. And it’s not smart if the GM pays top dollar for him and the coaches design the offense around him.

These guys represent a risk and there is a real likelihood that they just won’t be available at some point. In that way, it is not much different than a guy who is a good player on a bum knee. You can not depend on that kind of guy. So let him play while he can, but you need to have an alternative.

Similarly, guys like Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are first of all not available, as their rights are owned by the Pittsburgh Steelers. They might be potentially available in trade if you are willing to give up a few draft picks and pay them $15 M to $20 M per year. That is nuts. Don’t go for that deal unless there is a huge discount available.

As another example, the Giants front office is hilarious. They thought that by giving $65 Million guaranteed to Odell Beckham, Jr., he would suddenly mature and become a team leader. But no, he is still a compulsive troublemaker, and getting all that guaranteed money makes him feel bold enough to trash talk anyone he wants including the coach or the entire City of New York.

Now the Giants suddenly realize that they can not trade him and they have a radioactive personality on their hands. Their main hope is to blame quarterback Eli Manning and hope that nobody notices $65 Million in guaranteed money for a balky wide receiver with a history of eccentric behavior.

So, as an organization, do we give second chances to troubled players, criminal, and just plain jerks? Well, we elect them to Congress, so why not let them play football if they are good enough?

Yes, the team can afford to do some of that, but only if there is a program in place that makes us think the troubled player can turn it around; and if  we have the self-discipline to  not throw too much responsibility at him too soon; and if the rest of the league is willing to give us a major discount; and if we have a backup plan in place that allows us to move on without the guy if necessary; and if the team is really improved with that guy on the roster.

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That’s a lot of “ifs” but that situation can plausibly be created once or twice a year.  But, we are not going to pay top dollar for head cases like Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, and we should all say a prayer for the New York Giants front office, because those people are undoubtedly insane.