Yesterday the Browns announced that Mike Lombardi was dismissed from his general manager post, and that Joe Banner would be stepping down as CEO but would stay on for two more months to ease the transition. Owner Jimmy Haslam promoted assistant GM Ray Farmer to the GM post and has set up a power structure where Farmer and new head coach Mike Pettine report directly to him.
Now, you can tell from the title of this post that I’m not a fan of these moves. My position, though, isn’t based strictly on opinions of any of the men involved. It’s a matter of the process used to arrive at these decisions.
Jimmy Haslam finalized ownership of the Browns on October 25, 2012. Almost immediately, he put an end to the brief Tom Heckert–Mike Holmgren–Pat Shurmur era. Even though this move was made relatively shortly into their tenures– Holmgren was gone almost immediately, and Heckert and Shurmur were canned the day the season ended– these moves were the right ones. Shumur’s only noticeable trait was in-game cowardice. Holmgren and Heckert had some baffling ideas on player evaluation: they traded down from the pick that Atlanta used on Julio Jones, and with two first-round picks in 2012, they traded the first with three others to move up one spot to take Trent Richardson #3 overall, and then they used their second first-rounder on 28-year-old quarterback Brandon Weeden. (To be fair, they did correctly identify Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft as a big-time talent.) It’s pretty clear that when new ownership comes in, if they didn’t hire the guys currently running the shop, and those guys aren’t getting things done, then they’re gone.
So that quick decision was fine.
What has happened this offseason suggests an owner who doesn’t really know what he’s doing and doesn’t know what he wants.
That offseason, Haslam hired Joe Banner as CEO, making him the top guy for football operations and the one who reported to Haslam directly. In turn, Banner hired Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski as head coach, then hired Mike Lombardi as GM after having made the coaching decision.
The team didn’t do well, but this was to be expected. Cleveland finished 4-12, but with an eye to the future: Thanks to two draft-day trades and the fleecing of Indianapolis in the Trent Richardson deal, Cleveland had an extra first-, third-, and fourth-round pick in what looked to be a very deep draft. Chudzinski had absolutely nothing to work with at quarterback, but he displayed some strength in fourth-down decision making and other crucial gameday aspects, and the players seemed to like him. So the franchise had a ton of picks to load up with fresh talent and a young, offensive-minded coach to groom the QB of the future whom they would draft. They looked to be in a bright spot to build for the future.
Then the Browns fired Chudzinski the day the season ended.
I didn’t understand that move. I didn’t like it. I agreed with most of the coaching fires this offseason, but I thought Chudzinski was an overall positive. (In my season-ending coaching rankings, I had him ranked 16th, but that was knowing he’d been fired. No other coach who was eventually fired I ranked higher than 25th.)
My opinion of the firing was further colored by the bizarre leaks that were coming out of Cleveland– things like “Chudzinski was fired for not cutting Greg Little” and “Chudzinski was fired because he stuck with Brandon Weeden too long.” In the first place, these leaks don’t make any sense: Chudzinski wasn’t in charge of the roster, so it wasn’t his job to cut Little; In the second place, these leaks are amateur hour: A franchise issuing anonymous stories trashing an ex-employee is a sign of a franchise that is trying to save face after making a move that is difficult to justify. (At least Al Davis would personally tell the media what was wrong with his latest fire.) And it’s a sign of an organization that can’t be trusted.
Coaches around the league must have sensed the same thing. Banner and Lombardi didn’t seem to have much of a plan in mind for Chud’s replacement. Word leaked that they loved Josh McDaniels (last seen setting the Denver Broncos back several years). McDaniels declined to interview. A number of other names were floated in the media, all of whom did not return interest in the head coaching job. The Browns’ coaching search probably hit its lowest point when word leaked that the Browns had interviewed Greg “No. 32″ Schiano about the job, and it took about five minutes of howling laughter from all of Twitter before the Browns put out the word that he was not a candidate for the job.
Peter King’s MMQB column today told the story of the Browns’ moves from Haslam’s point of view, which is essentially this: Yeah, I know the timing is bad, but Banner’s way of doing things wasn’t working for me and I didn’t want to keep going in that direction when I felt a change was needed. Given the way the coaching process played out, especially if Haslam liked Chudzinski and didn’t agree with his firing (his opinion is not mentioned in King’s column), I could see why he would think Banner and his org structure were “a potential roadblock to success.”
However, the following sequence of events makes me question Haslam’s judgment.
King wrote the following:
Bill Belichick and Urban Meyer were strong in recommendations for fired Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano—Belichick called twice—and here’s where I hear there was a major rift in the organization. Banner wanted nothing to do with Schiano. Haslam was intrigued with him after the over-the-top recommendation from Belichick. The group flew to Tampa to interview Schiano, and one source said Banner was cold to Schiano, not participating much in the interview. Banner likely thought Schiano would be a disastrous hire, given all the negatives in recent Cleveland history. He was probably right, but the owner was open to it, and when the owner’s open to it, the man running football operations should at least consider it.
First, if Jimmy Haslam was a big Greg Schiano fan, then Jimmy Haslam has no business being near the Cleveland Browns coach-hiring process. Schiano got a recommendation from Bill Belichick? Well, players have already gone on record saying Schiano basically worships Belichick, so that’s not surprising, and on top of that, I’m sure Belichick recommended Josh McDaniels, Romeo Crennel, and Eric Mangini– well, the first time anyway– as well. Schiano, as far as I can tell, has never actually worked with Belichick or Urban Meyer, so what are those recommendations worth, anyway?
You know what’s even more relevant than “all the negatives in recent Cleveland history”? All the negatives in recent Greg Schiano history. The Schiano era probably would have gone much like the Eric Mangini era did in Cleveland: Dump the talented WR and TE and make a sweetheart deal with your old team to get a bunch of players you like. The same players you went 4-12 with the previous season.1
Second, if the owner-CEO are so disconnected that the CEO won’t even consider a coaching candidate the owner likes, then the owner should fire the CEO before he hires a head coach. The team settled on Buffalo defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who did a very good job last season and who should be better than Schiano, at least.
This Cleveland Plain Dealer story was even more illuminating on the situation. Pettine was apparently Haslam’s guy– Banner seemed set on Seahawks DC Dan Quinn– and Chudzinski was as well. The disjointed nature of these transactions is what makes me worry about Haslam’s process. If he thought Banner was making a mistake firing Chudzinski, he should have stopped the move. If he only became aware of Banner’s inability to get the job done during the coaching process2, he should have dismissed Banner and Lombardi (who was apparently an afterthought to Haslam) and promoted Farmer, giving him input on the coaching search. Instead, Farmer was not part of the coaching search, and both he and Pettine will report to Haslam directly. Though he might have cleared out a problem front office, he may have also created a structure where the coach and GM don’t end up on the same page. Ask Miami how that’s working out for them– though, to be fair, Farmer turned down the Dolphins GM job, so there’s hope that another franchise is even more dysfunctional than Cleveland!
I think the Browns are going to regret letting Chudzinski go. I think there are a lot of reasons for Browns fans to worry about Jimmy Haslam (obligatory Pilot Flying J reference here). But if you want to be optimistic, it is possible to construct a timeline where Haslam, as a rookie team owner, didn’t understand some of the problems he was facing until they surfaced. And in facing those problems, he did the best he could.
Good results and good decisions by the new coach and GM would go a long way toward selling that story.
1 – Beware the coach who describes the type of player he wants as “His Men,” i.e. “Mangini Men”, “Schiano Men”. This almost always means “Players who put up with my dictatorship without much of a fuss.” It also usually means the coach will get rid of very talented players if they don’t fit his mold– and in the NFL, you can’t afford to do that.^
2 – Which is possible: as the Plain Dealer noted, at least three potential head coaching hires this offseason didn’t want the job because they didn’t want to work with Banner, Lombardi, or both.^