While the Cavaliers try to deal with the Detroit Pistons in the NBA conference finals and the Indians continue was has been a special year so far, the Cleveland Browns fight back in the battle for local sports affection with exciting tales from NFL Europa.
It's not working that well, even with this year's name change from "NFL Europe" to "NFL Europa". The "a" makes it cool.
In addition to the absence of meaningful television coverage, the NFL's league across the Atlantic isn't helped that much by the quality of talent tossed overseas. The Browns, in particular, lack any real success stories coming from the marginal players they've sent overseas to gain additional experience.
Players the team has hyped in the past, like Nevada basketball player-turned-defensive end Corey Jackson, have failed to catch on after returning to the United States. As a result, cynicism reigns among the media and fans when it comes to any attempts to generate excitement about Browns players who are standing out while playing for teams like Berlin and Cologne.
The primary function of the league for many teams is to be able to stash players on their roster who have an additional couple of weeks in training camp thanks to NFLE exemptions.
Whether that will change this year remains to be seen, and hinges largely on whether or not RB Chris Barclay can challenge for a kick return job during training camp this August. The odds are stacked against him with a half-dozen players vying for a role returning punts and with Josh Cribbs fairly well established as the team's kickoff return man. The Wake Forest product made some headway in training camp competition in 2006, earning him a year on the practice squad.
Barclay has at least mustered some statistics worth discussing, including his first rushing touchdown of the season. In total, however, Barclay this last week managed only 29 yards in twelve attempts against competition more likely to gain traction in Arena Football than the NFL. His kickoff returns were similarly anemic, with two returns for a mere sixteen yards.
WR Steve Sanders, who is allocated to the 2-4 Berlin Thunder along with Barclay, got his first start of the season, pulling down a single catch for seven yards. Overall, Sanders has just two catches for 26 yards, numbers that will not push away the still-bright memory of Richard Alston's magical NFL Europe season several years ago*.
The highlight of the week was probably the play of relative veteran LB Clifton Smith, who made what this week's NFLE press releases says was a "key fourth-quarter interception" to help the Cologne Centurians to a 20-17 win over the Rhein Fire. Smith also contributed six tackles and broke up another pass.
Punter Kyle Basler, playing for the Frankfurt Galaxy, has been steady, but won't make the Browns roster unless Dave Zastudil is hit by a falling comet. Even with the Browns, the chance of this sort of calamity occurring in the next four months is less than ten percent.
Defensive tackle Alvin Smith, allocated to Amsterdam, has started all six games but barely registers on the statistical radar, having accumulated thirteen tackles during the season.
* Alright, that was sarcasm. But he did have a few decent plays as Europe's version of Antwaan Randle-El for a few weeks.