In two days the Browns’ 2015 will be over, and the real drama will unfold. Heads will roll. It’s just a matter of how many and whose. The most important question is whom the Haslams will bring in to lead the franchise’s football operations into an uncertain future.
It’s a mark of how dysfunctional this organization is when we can safely say that the most shocking thing to occur on Black Monday would be for the owner to announce that he’s sticking with his originally professed value of stability. If Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine are retained for their third season together, Haslam would be living up to his own words when he bought the team and again last summer:
We’re not going to blow things up, okay? … I understand why people might ask that after a couple of bumps in the first couple of years, but we are not going to do that. I think we’re putting a good foundation in place… I feel good that we have the right people in the building now.
But although he hasn’t said much in public since, nobody expects him to hold fast to this stance. Nor should he. Stability may correlate with success, but it doesn’t cause it (see Millen, Matt). If you don’t have the right decision-makers in place, and if they don’t work in harmony, sticking with them is foolhardy.
And while it’s arguable as to whether two years provides enough time to judge a young general manager or a first-time head coach, what’s not arguable is that both Farmer and Pettine have flopped.
The general manager inherited a surfeit of draft capital in 2014 and squandered most of it, spending a total of six picks on Justin Gilbert, Johnny Manziel, and Terrance West, three players whose attitudes and character should have raised more questions than they apparently did.
Farmer eschewed using any of his ten picks on wide receivers in 2014, one of the best draft classes ever at that position, even though he knew the Browns’ top wideout, Josh Gordon, was headed for a lengthy suspension.
Farmer let many of the Browns’ useful veterans leave, replacing them with older but not necessarily better free agents. Karlos Dansby for D’Qwell Jackson. Donte Whitner for T.J. Ward. Randy Starks for Jabaal Sheard. Tramon Williams for Buster Skrine. Paul McQuistan for Shawn Lauvao.
There’s the imprudent use of the transition rather than franchise tag on center Alex Mack. There’s the outrageous giveaway to his fellow former Chief Dwayne Bowe. And then there’s Textgate, his undue interference with the coaching staff that got him suspended and played a big part in the departure of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
As for Pettine, he’s displayed more admirable leadership qualities than Farmer, but that’s too low of a bar. He’s also been petty in his handling of players, and there are legitimate criticisms to be made of his in-game strategy, clock management, player development, and scheme installation.
It’s gotten to the point that he knows that keeping his coaching staff intact is an untenable position, but Pettine should and reportedly will go under the bus with them, becoming in all probability the fifth straight Browns coach to be fired following a season-ending loss to Pittsburgh.
Rob Chudzinski got less than a year before being scapegoated for losing his last seven games after a first half that exceeded expectations. His successor lost the last five games of his rookie year and will need a major upset to end 2015 with the same record that got Chud fired.
It’s understandable that Pettine would spin his deteriorating situation as one in which seeds of growth have been planted. But it’s the mid-winter of our discontent. If there are sprouts to emerge next year, there are also uprootings to expect. Mack, Mitchell Schwartz, Tashaun Gipson, Travis Benjamin, and Craig Robertson are all starters headed for free agency.
And two years into the Manziel era, the Browns still lack clarity at the game’s most important position. There’s a case to be made for offloading him. And there’s a case for keeping him, at least for another year. But there’s no plausible argument that the uneasy Farmer/Pettine arrangement is on course for developing a roster and a team prepared to excel in the foreseeable future.
The responsibility for that comes down to Haslam. As he said two years ago in the press conference following the Chud firing:
What I want our fans to hear is nobody cares about winning and is going to work any harder to get us there than the people you’re looking at right now, particularly the owner.
Candidly, that was another ownership utterance that turned out not to be true. The people the press saw then were CEO Joe Banner, who himself was fired weeks later, and the owner himself, who by all accounts spends maybe a day or two a week in the Cleveland area tending to his team.
In firing his CEO, Haslam eliminated the layer of management between himself and his GM and coach, who both report directly to him. Was it wise to have two first-timers running the show, reporting to no one but a newish owner who just so happens to also have another job, as chairman and CEO of a company with $25 billion in annual sales, one working its way through a nasty rebate fraud scandal and a buyout of its largest private-equity partner?
It seems from the outside like an atmosphere primed for power struggles, political intrigue, and the poking of noses into areas outside departmental boundaries.
So God help us Browns fans. We’re in as bad a shape as a team and organization as any franchise in football, as bad as any of the Lerners’ predicaments or Modell’s morasses either, save for The Move itself.
The Haslams (including Jimmy’s wife Dee) have been probing into things behind the scenes, within the organization and outside it. We don’t know what they have in store, though Hall of Fame exec Ron Wolf, age 76, has acknowledged speaking with the owner.
Perhaps a surprise awaits, and Haslam will yield to the need for a credible, experienced, strong, and emotionally intelligent football executive to provide leadership. Wolf recommended Randy Lerner’s hiring of Mike Holmgren back in 2010, and that didn’t turn out well, but that’s probably more due to the 2012 ownership change and the shift to the ill-advised Banner regime.
Or perhaps there’s news to be made with a big-name coach, not another newbie or retread. The name that seems both intriguingly sensible and outlandishly improbable is Jon Gruden. He has links to Haslam via the University of Tennessee. He’s a Sandusky native who “gets” the Browns as an enduring cultural institution. He has ties to Wolf from their time in Green Bay. He’s 100-85 as a head coach with two teams, winning five division titles and one Super Bowl in 11 years. He’s a believer in the potential of the first-round quarterback the Browns have under contract for at least two more years.
But would he leave his excellent broadcasting gig to return to the grind with an abysmal team with an impatient owner and an unsettled organization? It’s just crazy enough to enjoy pondering, as we await the next swinging of the axe that begins the latest crucial off-season of transition for our beaten-down Browns.