By Tony Grossi
The Morning Kickoff …
The symbol of mediocrity: If you break it down, there is one player on the Browns who symbolizes the Mike Holmgren-Tom Heckert-Pat Shurmur era.
For better or for worse, that player is Greg Little.
On several fronts, Little symbolizes the plain mistakes that have been made in building the team. He was one of those classic “value” picks, which is another name for a project or a risk selection.
It all starts, of course, with the dramatic trade-down in the first round of the 2011 draft. Holmgren and Heckert decided in Year 2 together to grab what amounted to fool’s good – a stockpile of Atlanta draft picks – to allow the Falcons to select elite receiver Julio Jones with the No. 6 overall pick.
The Browns dropped down to No. 26 for five draft picks, including two in 2012. They justified the move by saying they needed players to replenish the aged roster left by Eric Mangini.
Further rationalization for passing on Jones was that they were able to snatch a receiver – Little -- with Atlanta’s second-round pick. They said Little, 6-2 and 225 pounds, was a physical receiver, like Jones, who could run hard with the ball after the catch. He was perfect for Holmgren’s – er, Shurmur’s -- West Coast offense.
The difference between Jones and Little was immense, of course.
Jones was a proven, big-time player at the highest level of college football -- Alabama of the Southeastern Conference. Little was an inconsistent performer for Butch Davis’ tainted North Carolina team of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Little did not play his final year because of a suspension for taking improper gifts from a booster. He looked the part of a big-time receiver, but he was raw and there were those maturity issues with the suspension and personality quirks like kicking the ball into the stands after a touchdown catch.
Little was a project.
Holmgren took Little under his large wing. That special attention gave Little a sense of entitlement. Little would say, “He sees me as a player who’s going to make a lot of plays for the team.”
As a rookie coming off a year of college inactivity, Little surprised some by leading the team with 61 catches. The vast majority were of short range. He scored two touchdowns, including one catch-and-run of 76 yards that was the Browns’ longest play from scrimmage since 2007.
Little also made a lot of drops, anywhere from 12 to 14 depending on the statistical service used. He was either first or second in the NFL in that dubious category.
More attention: Entering his second season, Little lost about 15 pounds ostensibly to improve his quickness. Without anyone else to press him for the job, the Browns made Little their No. 1 receiver. What does that mean? Little is on the field for more snaps than any other receiver.
To help develop him, the Browns hired Nolan Cromwell, another former Holmgren assistant coach, and made him a senior offensive assistant to work with wide receivers. Little’s drops continued in training camp and preseason.
Through three games, Little is third on the team with seven receptions for 74 yards. He has one touchdown and at least two drops.
Lately, Little has irked Browns fans by striking the Usain Bolt pose after inconsequential catches with his team trailing on the scoreboard. After fans reacted angrily to a Little pose and celebration dance in Cincinnati following a TD grab, he infuriated them further by writing on his Twitter account that he doesn’t care what fans think. The Tweet has since been removed.
On Sunday, Little struck the pose on two occasions during the Browns’ 24-14 loss to Buffalo. It appeared Little was tweaking the fans on each occasion.
“I can’t speak for everyone else, but I’ve had my conversations with him about that,” Shurmur said on Monday.
I asked Shurmur if he had those conversations prior to the Buffalo game or as a result of the Buffalo game.
“All along, I’ve had my conversations with him – about all issues,” he replied.
On Monday, Little said he will stop doing the pose because of the negative attention it has drawn.
“I think if we were 3-0 everybody would be doing the pose, but we’re 0-3 so everybody doesn’t want to see that,” he said.
The entitlement: Lackluster talent at receiver has been the bane of the Holmgren-Heckert-Shurmur regime.
Because of several reasons – the Jones snub, the failure to pursue or sign a top-flight receiver in free agency, the inability of Mohamed Massaquoi to stay healthy and really turn the corner, the slow growth of rookies Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin – Little on paper is the best wideout the Browns have.
But his drops and his antics have made him a lightning rod for the 0-3 start.
“We can’t play a guy that’s going to drop footballs,” Shurmur said, “but I will say this: we have a young roster with young players and that’s the reality of it, too. We need to work with them and inspire them to play better.”
You can easily make the argument that the Browns should sit down Little to deliver a stern message. He’s inciting, not producing. But I don’t see it happening. After all, benching Little would indict the signature move of the Holmgren-Heckert era.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to email@example.com
Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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