It Must Be the Gods. No Franchise Could Be This Screwed Up For This Long
By Mark Bechtel
The worst part of having The Football Gods aligned against you isn’t the constant losing. It isn’t the draft picks who come already washed up or the coaches who seem chronically overmatched. It isn’t even the looks you get from people in bars or at dinner parties when you talk about “The Football Gods.” It’s not having anyone to blame.
You can’t just fire off an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can’t befoul your favorite piece of gear and mail it to The Gods c/o Football Olympus. And standing in the middle of a Buffalo Wild Wings cursing loudly and shaking your fist at the sky is marginally cathartic at best, out-and-out sociopathic at worst. Blaming fate or luck or whatever you want to call it might seem like a classic coping mechanism and nothing more, but if you’re a Browns fan there’s a logic to it. It’s Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one. And, remarkably, the notion that there exist football Fates who smile on Boston’s fans while continually crapping on Cleveland’s is more believable than the possibility that one franchise could screw things up so royally for so long. Blame the Gods? Or blame Brady Quinn, William Green, Courtney Brown, Tim Couch, Craig Powell, Touchdown Tommy Vardell, Clifford Charlton, Mike (Mad Dog) Junkin, Patrick Rowe, Todd Philcox, Mark Harper, Mike Oliphant, Butch Davis, Chris Palmer, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Bud Carson, Jim Shofner, Terry Robiskie, Brian Robiskie, Mrs. Robiskie, Marc Trestman, Phil Savage, Dwight Clark et al.? The former is a lot simpler, even if it means there’s no face to tape to the dartboard.
But occasionally a bull's-eye comes along. There was, of course, Art Modell, who fired Paul Brown, regained a certain amount of goodwill and then torched it all in 1995 to become public enemies one through 10. In 1993 coach Bill Belichick, with Modell’s blessing, cut Kosar, which is like burning a stack of Please Please Me LPs on the Liverpool docks. (Kosar, of course, latched on with Dallas and won a Super Bowl. Afterwards, a friend sent my dad a T-shirt featuring a shirt with a giant upraised middle finger sporting a Cowboys Super Bowl ring above the words THANKS BILL.) And now there’s Jimmy Haslam, the trucking magnate and former Steelers minority owner who bought the team 14 months ago and has overseen the most maddening, embarrassing period I can remember. (And I well remember the Spergon Wynn era.) Which is why I spent Sunday night seriously debating whether to befoul my Kosar jersey and mail it to Haslam.
I’m not going to sit here and argue that firing Rob Chudzinski is tantamount to firing Paul Brown. Finishing the season with 10 losses in 11 games is pretty bad no matter how you slice it. What’s so maddening about the move from the standpoint of a fan is its utter tone-deafness. It’s similar to the team’s decision to trade Trent Richardson to the Colts earlier this season. From a football standpoint the deal was defensible. (Richardson was somehow worse in Indy than in Cleveland.) But both moves scream, We have no direction and no vision, so we’re going to scrap any sort of long-term plan and start over. Again. Haslam, CEO Joe Banner and GM Mike Lombardi, in the case of Richardson, could at least say, “Hey, he wasn’t our guy to begin with.” Chudzinski, though, was handpicked by the new regime before being axed less than a year later.
My best friend is, like me, a transplanted Clevelander who never gave up his allegiance to the Browns. As I was about to send a heated text to him last night, my phone pinged with a message from him. It said the exact same thing I was about to type: This organization is a f---ing joke. Indeed, Chudzinski’s firing was not first debacle brought about by Haslam and his cadre. First there was the investigation by the FBI and IRS into alleged fraudulent business practices in Haslam’s Pilot Flying J trucking company, which led to the development of a contingency plan in August that would see Haslam’s octogenarian father take over the team should the owner have to step down. Nothing like a distraction-free training camp for the rookie coach, eh? (The Haslam trifecta of a quick trigger finger, run-ins with the feds and Cleveland ties bring to mind a less successful version of George Steinbrenner, a native of suburban Rocky River who almost bought the Indians in 1971.)
This came after Haslam hired Lombardi, whose previous comments ripping quarterback Brandon Weeden (“a panicked disaster” is what he called the team’s 2012 selection of the then 28-year-old when Lombardi was an NFL Network analyst) made things awkward from day one and flew in the face of the cardinal rule mandating that if you’re going to do something to undermine your starting QB, you should at least have a good backup in place. (Modell and Belichick had Vinny Testaverde, who took the team to the playoffs the next season.) Lombardi had also had unkind words for wide receiver Josh Gordon, a 2012 second-round supplemental pick whom he termed a “waste.” Gordon led the NFL in receiving in ’13.
And then there was the decision by the front office to sit on $25 million in cap space. The Browns’ biggest offseason move was signing linebacker Paul Kruger. The second biggest was trading for wide receiver Davone Bess and signing him to a contract extension, then watching him put up career lows in catches and TDs while finishing second in the league in drops. The third: re-signing the long snapper. So it was that Rob Chudzinski finished the season with 31-year-old journeyman Jason Campbell as his quarterback. His running back was Edwin Baker, a 2012 seventh-rounder who was signed from the practice squad of the league’s worst team and is already with his fourth club. (In his defense, he’s the leading rusher in NFL history among guys who go by the name Edwin.) The 4-12 season that followed couldn’t be put down to bad luck, or angry football gods. This was a mismanaged team in disarray getting the abysmal results it deserved.
Asked in the summer by The MMQB’s Greg Bedard about the team’s lack of offseason activity, Lombardi said, “Having cap room is a huge asset, so we’re going to make sure we protect our assets. 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.”
By that logic we can expect another offseason of lethargy packaged as envelope-pushing. (A new holder, anyone?) The team does have a stockpile of draft picks, but that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Only four of last year’s six picks are with the team, and only one played more than 20% of this season’s snaps. And going back farther, Lombardi’s draft history as a personnel man in Cleveland is checkered at best. He was part of the brain trust that passed on Shane Conlan and took Junkin with the fifth pick in 1987, just after the Browns lost the AFC title game to the Broncos on The Drive. Junkin was a linebacker from Duke about whom one Cleveland scout said, “He plays like a mad dog in a meat market.” (From Duke?) Alas, on a football field he played like a regular dog. (It can be argued that that pick is the Browns’ Terminator moment, the one thing they would prevent if they could build a machine and send a replicant back to alter history. After Junkin bombed, the team spent its first-round pick the next year on another linebacker: Charlton, who made one start in his two-year career. But that’s a conversation for another day.)
Chudzinski’s ouster was met with disdain by players. “We’ve had some crazy things happen since I’ve been here,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson told Peter King, “but this one, this tops the list.” The press was just as harsh. When Haslam and Banner met the media, and the owner said: “There’s nothing — and you all have every right to write it — that galls me more than to read on Monday mornings, ‘Same old Browns.’ Because that’s not what we’re all about.”
But this isn’t the same old Browns. This is worse.
Mark Bechtel is a Sports Illustrated senior editor. Don’t get him started on the Indians.