(Mark Duncan/AP; James D. Smith/Icon SMI)
(Mark Duncan/AP; James D. Smith/Icon SMI)

The New New New New New New Thing

Yet another franchise reboot—call it Browns 6.0—and yet more promises to build a contender in Cleveland. Why should we believe this time?

By
Greg A. Bedard
· More from Greg·

BEREA, Ohio — The latest rebuilding project of the Cleveland Browns started on the ground floor, literally. While the second floor of the team’s training facility was being revamped this offseason, players, coaches and staffers were relocated to the first floor and to trailers outside.

Considering the Browns have finished above .500 just twice since being reborn in 1999, haven’t won more than five games in a season since 2007 and last year got a new owner, Jimmy Haslam III, a wholesale remodeling of the franchise was in order. It will be up to CEO Joe Banner, who was installed by Haslam last October, to make sure the alterations are more than just cosmetic.

At least Banner has been through this before. In 1994 his friend Jeffrey Lurie purchased the Eagles and brought him into the front office. During Banner’s 17 years with Philly, 11 of them as team president, the Eagles made 11 playoff appearances and won eight NFC East titles. “I hate to say it, but the depth of the challenge is even greater here, from the football side to the business side,” Banner, 60, said in a rare one-on-one talk inside the Browns’ cafeteria last month. “There was less frustration in Philly, but there was frustration. They’d had some success, where here they really, really struggled. The plan wasn’t that different. I really started by dramatically changing who worked there.”

A year ago shock waves rippled through Philadelphia and the league when Banner stepped down as president of the Eagles. Lurie said the move was Banner’s idea, that he wanted a new challenge, but the popular perception was that Banner had lost a power struggle with coach Andy Reid and general manager Howie Roseman. In the aftermath of the shakeup, Banner was hired by Haslam to overhaul the Browns, signaling the end of Mike Holmgren’s reign as team president; the Eagles, meanwhile, finished 4-12, their worst record since 1998, and Reid was fired after 14 seasons.

bedard-browns-reboot-banner
Browns CEO Joe Banner. (Tony Dejak/AP)

Banner’s reputation inside league circles is one of a shrewd, calculating and patient businessman. He was instrumental in the Eagles’ ascent to becoming one of the NFL’s most respected and consistently successful franchises. The root of that came from Banner’s expertise with the salary cap. Philly was ahead of the curve in extending deserving young players before their contract was due to expire, usually at a big discount compared to the market rate. The Eagles were so disciplined with their cap that they rarely had to release a player due to money—it was almost always performance and/or age. But Banner’s steadfast belief in not overpaying for players past the age of 30 led to fan dissatisfaction when the team parted ways with several popular players, from Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor to Duce Staley and Brian Dawkins. While Banner has publicly expressed regret over the free-agent departure of Dawkins, a four-time All-Pro and the captain of the defense who went to the Broncos after 13 seasons, the Eagles hit on a lot more of those decisions than they missed. (Even Dawkins had just one good year in Denver on a five-year deal.) The chief criticism of Banner came from protracted contract battles (Terrell Owens, DeSean Jackson) and the belief that he was in control during questionable drafts in 2010 and ’11. The timing of Banner’s stepping aside in June 2012 seemed to make him the fall guy for the Eagles’ disastrous “Dream Team” of the previous season.

But with the Eagles, no one outside the franchise was sure who had final say over personnel. Banner said that was by design, although he was often seen by fans as the bad guy because he dealt with contracts. “It was fine for me to have that role; I felt it was in the best interest of the organization,” Banner said. “With Andy Reid, [then-personnel director] Tom Heckert, Howie, Jeffrey … it was pretty egoless group. The fact that people underestimated my involvement or my contributions was just because we chose to never talk about it. And that includes the mistakes and the successes. I was part of both.

“The truth is, it was collaborative although it was always real that Andy could veto. That’s not really how he functioned, though. In the end somebody has to have the ability to make a final decision, but if we were too divided we just didn’t do it. We felt, ‘We’re each pretty smart, so if we just do the things that we’ve have a general consensus for, our odds of being right are a lot higher than if we’re going the things we’re all unsure about or divided about.’ ”

The Browns will follow the same collaborative decision-making process, but make no mistake: The buck stops with Banner. “I do have a little more power in the sense that in Philly the head coach worked with me closely but was not a direct report to me, and he is here,” Banner said. “In the execution, that’s really not as big a difference as it sounds, but it is a difference. And if one was defining the extent of power [and] control—I hate to even use those words—there is a little bit of a difference.”

Everyone has a sense that we’re not waiting around for people. We’re going to live and die by how we play. —LB D’Qwell Jackson

You can see that approach in the way Banner went about filling out the organization: The depth of the challenge in Cleveland became a recruitment tool. “Off-the-field business, on-field performance, all of it—there’s a lot of room for growth,” Banner said of the Browns. “Some of the people from other organizations, I told them: ‘You can be part of one of the more conspicuous turnarounds that anyone has ever been a part of.’ ”

Banner said one of the top qualities he looks for is people who have an unusual drive to prove themselves. Probably better than most front-office executives in the NFL, he knows what that means. There are still those both in the game and outside it who won’t let Banner forget that he didn’t come from a football background—he was in the clothing business before joining the Eagles.

“For people who don’t have these traditional backgrounds, the threshold of proving yourself is a little bit higher and the skepticism is a little bit greater,” Banner said. “I’m trying to fill the building with people at all positions who have something to prove, so that they’re extra driven.”

* * *

Banner’s first hire was Alec Scheiner as team president. He most recently had been the senior vice president and general counsel for the Cowboys; he had also been involved in Steve Biscotti’s purchase of the Ravens and the Hornets’ relocation to New Orleans in the NBA. Still, Scheiner has never been entrusted with this kind of power position before. While he’s the point man on renovations to FirstEnergy Stadium, Scheiner has been at Banner’s side throughout the reshuffling and restocking of the Browns.

bedard-browns-reboot-coach-owner
Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski (l.) and owner Jimmy Haslam. (Mark Duncan/AP)

For Banner, hiring former Panthers and Browns offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski as head coach came next—even before general manager. “This is going to be a hard way to say this, because some people will take it the wrong way: I think the coach is more important than the personnel guy,” Banner said. “I don’t think you can succeed without both of them being good, so it’s just to a degree. I wanted to make sure I had a clear path to attract the coach we wanted. I didn’t want him saying, ‘Well, I don’t like the personnel guy you just hired.’ I didn’t want to take that chance. I wanted to get the coach first, and although I wasn’t going to let the coach pick the other person, I wanted to make sure I felt they were compatible and they were the right fit in terms of the types of things they believed in.”

This is Chudzinski’s first head-coaching job, but as a Toledo native he’s familiar with his proving ground. “I’m from here; grew up a Browns fans,” said Chudzinski, 45, who was tight ends coach in Cleveland in 2004 under Butch Davis and offensive coordinator in ’07 and ’08 under Romeo Crennel. “I know what this team means to these people better than most.”

But Banner saved his most daring hire for last, when he pulled Michael Lombardi from the NFL Network studios to be the general manager. Lombardi had been the personnel director for the Browns and then-coach Bill Belichick when Art Modell relocated the franchise to Baltimore, so the mere mention of him as a candidate—let alone his actual hiring—stoked criticism from fans and the Cleveland media. Yet Banner proceeded.

“I’m not sure trepidation is the right word; it was certainly something I had to think through,” Banner admitted. “But my job is to try to do what I think in the end is what the fans want and what we all want—to win as many games as we can. I felt we had to put all that aside, and if Mike was the guy who I thought, in conjunction with myself and Chud, was going to give us the best chance to win, then I had to hire him and trust that [animosity] would resolve itself.

“I’m new here, Jimmy’s new here, so you want people to feel good about what you’re doing—I would have rather he’d be the favored choice,” Banner said with a laugh, “but in the end I decided it was more important to hire who I thought was going to make the biggest difference in the won-loss record.”

bedard-browns-reboot-lombardi
Browns GM Mike Lombardi. (Mark Duncan/AP)

In a sense, Banner sees a lot of himself in Lombardi, whom he brought to Philadelphia first as a consultant in 1997 and then as director of pro personnel in ’98. Fans who have followed Banner look at his non-football background and some of the cold, calculated personnel decisions he made in Philadelphia, and aren’t enthused. Lombardi has a long track record of working with some of the brightest minds the game has seen—he was a scout for Bill Walsh’s 49ers and a personnel director with Belichick in Cleveland and Al Davis in Oakland—but is looked at as a talking head from TV land who never had final say when he was in the business.

“The similarity for me was Mike is perceived in a certain way by some people that I don’t think is an accurate reflection of either who he is as a person or his abilities in football,” Banner said. “That’s true about me too.”

* * *

For Lombardi, walking back into the building that opened in 1991, Belichick’s first season as Browns coach, has been a bit strange. He’s heard from just about everybody who was on Belichick’s old staff, which produced nine future NFL head coaches and general managers. “I told Nick Saban [the defensive coordinator on those teams] I finally went into his office and was checking to see if there was still anybody left in the building breaking tape down from back in that era,” Lombardi said. “Being back in the league is tremendous, but being back here is even better because it really has a special place in my heart—and an incomplete place in my heart with the way things ended.”

On the football side, the Browns want to be aggressive in all phases of the game. That’s why the hiring of coordinators Norv Turner (offense) and Ray Horton (defense) and the decision to retain Chris Tabor (special teams) were viewed as major coups within the building and around the league. The players, including those who are going on their fourth coach in eight years, certainly took note.

“What’s new to me is I haven’t been around an offensive coordinator, defensive and head coach that want to attack,” said linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. “Everyone has a sense that we’re not waiting around for people. We’re going to live and die by how we play. We’re not going to let the offense dictate what we do on defense, and vice versa. That is what any player wants. You want to be able to be aggressive. As a defensive player, that’s the mentality you have and that’s how you want to play it.”

Everyone associated with the Browns realizes they’ll go as far as their quarterback takes them. Brandon Weeden, last year’s first round pick, and veterans Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer will be closely watched. That’s why Chudzinski was hired. “Everywhere he’s been he’s gotten the quarterback to play at a high level,” Lombardi said.

Being back in the league is tremendous, but being back here is even better because it really has a special place in my heart—and an incomplete place in my heart with the way things ended. —GM Mike Lombardi

In 2007, with Chudzinski as offensive coordinator, the Browns went 10–6. That year he coaxed a Pro Bowl season out of Derek Anderson. As coordinator in Carolina the past two seasons he helped hone Cam Newton. He knows there’s plenty of room for growth with the Browns’ trio. “In this league the quarterback’s the key, and I’ve been really pleased with the progress we’ve made this spring—a tremendous amount of improvement for all three guys,” he said during the team’s minicamp in June. “We have a good mix of young guys and veterans. Right now the chemistry in that room is really good. They’re on the right track but have a long ways to go. I do think we’re heading in the right direction.”

bedard-browns-reboot-sideline
Rebuilding the franchise will require even more careful steps than what Cordell Roberson took as he tried to stay in-bounds on this pass during training camp. (Mark Duncan/AP)

The new Browns, who are armed with $31.7 million in cap room, hope that’s the case overall. “Having cap room is a huge asset, so we’re going to make sure we protect our assets,” Lombardi said. “Just because you have it doesn’t mean you should spend it. Every decision you make, you have to be judicious in terms of value. You have to be careful—measure twice, cut once, and understand that that money can be used in the next seasons.”

The decisions the Browns make with that cap room will likely determine whether or not the team will need yet another reboot in the future. “Every year, no matter what your record is, you feel like you can win every game,” Jackson said. “This year has a different feel to it.”

Whether different means better remains to be seen. For one, Haslam’s potential indictment on federal fraud charges stemming from problems at his Pilot Flying J truck-stop chain company—seven employees have pled guilty to various charges—could cause things to come crumbling down, though camp was being conducted as usual on the football side.

But there’s no doubt that the Browns have two leaders with successful track record in Banner and Scheiner. Lombardi has been around some of the greats in the game, and his time away from the front lines seem to have given him perspective. Chudzinski is an unknown quantity at the top, but Reid hadn’t even been a coordinator when Banner gave him a shot in Philadelphia. And Chudzinski has surrounded himself quality assistants by making Turner and Horton his coordinators. Add in the cap money going forward, and the Browns appear to have the framework to get things right, the sixth time around.

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28 comments
jpark40
jpark40

A lot of success for NFL franchises is simply luck at the quarterback position. The Seattle Seahawks two seasons ago were often thought of as the absolute worst team in football, employing also-ran Tavaris Jackson behind center. They drafted Russell Wilson in the middle of the draft, assuming he'd back up recently signed FA Matt Flynn. He turns heads in camp, becomes the starter, and the franchise has not looked back since. The same draft, the Browns took Brandon Weeden, and haven't had the same success. Do we put forth blame on the scouting staff of the Browns and praise that of the Seahawks? Or did the Seahawks make a "look what I found here" catch? 


My point is...the Browns have talent all over both sides of the field. To blame poor coaching, poor managing, and poor ownership for a team that just simply may have guessed wrong at quarterback a few more times than most teams may be lazy. Their division is definitely going to be weaker than it has been in many years, so they have a chance this year to squeak some extra wins out, and maybe give confidence to Weeden to help him grow. 


Or they may be back in the lottery hoping Aaron Murray can lead them back to the playoffs.

ChrisIvey
ChrisIvey

@jpark40 Murray would be a disaster in Chud's downfield system. Murray is a rhythm passer that can struggle when pressured or has to hold onto the ball too long. He would do best in a West Coast system

CaCaCaCleveland
CaCaCaCleveland like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Wow, you mean to tell me that the Cleveland Browns still actually exist? When watching NFL Network as far as they are concerned it seems that the NFL only consists of Pats, Jets, Steelers, Dolphins, Redskins, Vikings, Packers, Cowboys, Raiders, Broncos, 49ers and Seahawks. How can a "Network" that boasts 9 hours of training camp coverage a day virtually ignore half of the NFL and pretend they don't exist while doing the same old tired stories over and over again about the teams mentioned above?

I guess what I really mean is... how can MMQB provide so much fresh content that I literally cannot keep up with it and the NFL Network keeps saying the same things over and over again and ignoring so much?

WGEA
WGEA

@CaCaCaCleveland I understand what you mean.  As a Browns fan, i have to be satisfied with the only coverage we get being local coverage, or syndicated regurgitated animal sinew.  I didn't know anybody outside of Cleveland did anything except bash the Browns, and this was a refreshing look at our most recent "reboot" even though I don't think it can officially be a reboot since we've kept almost the entire roster from last season.  I knew there was a reason why Sports Illustrated is still one of the most highly respected sources for sports information.  I think they need to expand their television presence, and show ESPN and FoxSports what it means to be a true sports outlet.

beldene47
beldene47

@CaCaCaCleveland  

nfl network/espn = ny network

Other 30 teams to be farmed for talent for thee teams from ny.  Look at all the controversy started by nfl network/espn 

 'insiders' regarding players on the other 30 teams.  Too bad there are desperate snitch types looking for their break in ny.

Hard to believe these types didn't hear a peep about Flying Pilot J intrigues before Browns II sale in 2012...

Mike N
Mike N like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

A real HC last year would have won 7-8 games.  Shurmur had no clue on how to attack a defense (3rd and 1 and a dropped screen pass to Marecic ring a bell?)  and he was the play caller!

This team has more talent and better coordinators, Chud can easily win 8 or 9 games this year!

ClevelandPOWND
ClevelandPOWND

@Mike NNothing comes easy in the NFL. Taylor missed 8 games due to an pectoral tear, while Haden missed 5 (1 to injury) due to substance abuse. With those 2 alone, we could have one at least 2 additional games putting us at 7-9. Only time and practice will tell the future. But it's brighter than in years past.

jazzmoondj
jazzmoondj

Excellent review on the new Browns management, but I wish Banner defined the goals set on short term and long term.... what is short term in his opinion too.

Personally, I see a QB pick up in 1st rd again next draft.


Mike N
Mike N

@jazzmoondj 

You would know about 1st round QB picks, as Sanchez a top 5 pick, has crapped his pants only to be followed by Geno Smith this year!

jazzmoondj
jazzmoondj

@Mike N @jazzmoondj w/Sanchez we got to AFC Conf. Champ twice, that shows a solid system with talent on offense/defense can make things work even if ur QB is not top quality. Last 2 seasons you saw the other face of bad management where nothing works from top to bottom in Jets. 

As for G. Smith he was a steal in 2nd rd after stacking up on DEF in first rd.... I did not mind getting an OL or speedy hard hitting LB myself. 

Proud of what I support. J-E-T-S JETS JETS JETS

WGEA
WGEA

@jazzmoondj @Mike N With your DEFENSE you got to the AFC Conf Champ twice, and haven't been back since, because Sanchez has a weak back, but at least your linemen have strong butts. I kid. But obviously Banner's defined goals are to win more games, get to the playoffs, and win a championship.  I don't think it's much deeper than that.  4 NFC Championship appearances in a row, followed up by a Super Bowl loss.  It doesn't get more defined for a guy like Banner, unless he had been working for the Bills in the 90s.  So why would a short term goal be to draft a QB next year?  That would mean that his system is already failing, because Chub and Norv are s'posed to be able to develop quarterbacks.

beldene47
beldene47

The elephant in the room is the 'fuel rebategate' currently playing out with present owner's business.  Most people find it incredible that the league or other teams didn't get wind of this while the present owner was being vetted as team buyer.  Looks like it was let to happen as to keep as many options open for when a new LA stadium venue is ready to go.  Past draft and cap space looks suspicious too.    Browns I legacy being denigrated by pseudo Browns expansion spectacle since 1999.  Too bad the kids coming to play here don't have the continuity needed by a franchise.  Wonder what cable network is going to carry James's Browns the series? 

BrownieDog
BrownieDog like.author.displayName 1 Like

Commendations to MMQB (nice appealing format; kudos for your expanded NFL coverage) and to newly recruited writer Greg Bedard for this fine article. As another of the lifelong Browns fans, we may be gladly drinking the cool-aid again HA! (aka 6.0), but this time with a more substantial hope... or at least a better argument to believe.  I think the league and all who love the sport will see a high level of passionate fan support in Cleveland with steady progress from the team. Playing with a new staff and system will be hard early on, and the schedule is tough this year -- but at the least it should be entertaining with an open throttle on offense and defense.

ENTHUSIASTICALLY -- GO BROWNS!

thegplum1
thegplum1

re comment on keeping BB Hoodie...good job Modell! Credit for hiring him despite media & fans dislike of BB. But he coached Browns in '95 before the move then Modell fired him after season & before '96 season start. Paraphrasing Modell's words back then 'knew he had to go after move..Baltimore wouldn't accept him...needed coach with personality.'  Like almost everything else Art (RIP) touched, he screwed this up too. 

ggtank1
ggtank1 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

As a Packer fan I admire Brown's fans. It takes true fans to stay with teams not doing well. I remember growing up being happy if we could beat Chicago every year. Stay strong your time will come. The way the league is set up now anyone can win any year.

luvfoozball
luvfoozball like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

@ggtank1 I am a Bears fan and I can totally empathize with the Browns fans. Playing against the Steelers and Ravens must feel similar to how the Bears feel playing against the Packers with Favre and Rodgers :-) I felt bad for them last year when the Browns could not pull off the trade to get RGIII last year. Brandon Weeden is a poor consolation prize for losing out on RGIII.

Ciscos
Ciscos

The bigger question is will Jimmy Haslam's ownership be able to survive and he keep the team.

gary41
gary41

@Ciscos Haslam's departure is already scripted.  He will carry on a PR campaign, but a felon in jail cannot own an NFL team.  The change in ownership is only question of time and details.   

ChrisCornwell
ChrisCornwell like.author.displayName 1 Like

Factual error - no playoffs in 2007.  Basic fact checking guys.  Other than that, there is only one way to go, which is up.  The only favor the old regime did for this new regime is give them plenty of cap space. With some judicious decisions, this team can finally move forward. Also this new regime seems hungry to prove themselves which I like.   

AvsFan
AvsFan like.author.displayName 1 Like

Just a quick note, the Browns in 2007 didn't make the playoffs.

dala2171
dala2171 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Great story!  As a life long Browns fan, I'm always excited for a new season.  But I have to agree with D'Qwell,"this year has a different feeling to it".  It's time to show we can win...Go Browns!!

divirgilio33
divirgilio33

If they kept BB Hoodie, how many Super Bowls???  Best coaching staff ever from early 90's Brown staff???  top 5 for sure!  Good jog Modell!!!

GoPSULions
GoPSULions

I thought from the new CBA that the minimum salary cap (the least a team could spend) is 95% of the total cap - which for 2013 is $123 million, meaning the minimum is 116.85 million.  Which means of the 31.7 cap space they must spend most of it this season, unless I am missing something.

Dylon561
Dylon561

@GoPSULions Key phrase, "most of it this season." It's July.

GoPSULions
GoPSULions

@Dylon561@GoPSULionsWas a direct comment to Lobardi's statement  ".. and understand that that money can be used in the next seasons."

GoPSULions
GoPSULions

@Dylon561 @GoPSULions Found an article that seems to imply that the minimum is averaged across 3 or 4 seasons, so can hold on and level it out over that period, so not a simple yearly thing.

Dylon561
Dylon561

@GoPSULions @Dylon561 My bad. However, I do think that they have through the 2014 season to come into full compliance. Even then I think the punishment is a fine and some clubs may decide the fine is a better option than wasting cap money.

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