Why The Browns Blew Up The Franchise … Again

February 12, 2014 by Peter King

The Cleveland Browns interviewed Ken Whisenhunt for their head-coaching job in each of the past two Januaries, first after he was fired as Arizona’s head coach, and last month when he was employed as San Diego’s offensive coordinator. When Whisenhunt entered the room this year for the interview, he was one of the hottest commodities on the head-coaching market, and the Browns were very interested in him.

Whisenhunt said, “Why didn’t you guys hire me last year?’’

The Browns’ CEO who was in both interviews, Joe Banner, told Whisenhunt he didn’t think the staff he was putting together at the time was “a championship coaching staff.”

Whisenhunt, one NFL source said, was peeved that a man who had never coached and who’d been involved in football mainly on the business side would sit in judgment of his potential coaches.

“Who are you to tell me what makes up a championship coaching staff?” Whisenhunt said, with an edge in his voice.

That scene, another source told The MMQB, illustrated a big reason why owner Jimmy Haslam made the bombshell announcement he made Tuesday, firing Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi after their first full seasons on the job. Haslam became dubious about Banner’s football acumen and during the coach-search process following the firing of rookie coach Rob Chudzinski saw what a potential roadblock to success Banner would be. Add in Banner’s brusque and sometimes confrontational style that rubbed many around the NFL the wrong way, and you’ve got a good read on why Haslam stunned the NFL with the late-morning announcement.

As Haslam rushed to a meeting Tuesday evening, he wouldn’t be specific on the Whisenhunt story. About Banner, Haslam said “there was no one crowning blow’’ that made him dismiss the man he picked to run the organization 16 months ago. Haslam also knows he will be ridiculed—deservedly so—for looking like George Steinbrenner in his prime for the way he’s whacked coaches and front-office staff seemingly willy-nilly since he took over as owner on Oct. 16, 2012. Under Haslam, who came in preaching patient team-building, the Browns have fired two coaches (Pat Shurmur, Chudzinski), two general manages (Tom Heckert, Lombardi), a CEO (Banner) and a president (Mike Holmgren). They fired Chudzinski when he got off the team bus from Pittsburgh after the last game of the 2013 season. They have started four quarterbacks, and seem prepared to move heaven and earth to draft a new quarterback savior in the first round of the May 8 draft.

“There’s no training manual for being an NFL owner,” says Haslam. “There’s a steep learning curve to do it the right way, and I admit we didn’t get it right at first. But I am determined to do it.”

In Haslam’s 17-month tenure, the team has employed 56 coaches.

To call the Browns a circus would be an insult to circuses.

“Well,’’ Haslam told The MMQB by phone, “there’s no training manual for being an NFL owner. There’s a steep learning curve to do it the right way, and I admit we didn’t get it right at first. But I am determined to do it right, and to get the right people in place.

“In my business career, most of the mistakes I’ve made come from not moving quickly enough when you know there’s a tough decision to be made. The easy thing to do here would be to stay doing what you’re doing, even when you feel like you need to change course.’’

The latest Browns’ shakeup handed the GM job to a man, Ray Farmer, who wasn’t a part of the four-man team interviewing potential head coaches. Farmer also becomes the de facto head of football operations, since Banner won’t be replaced. In the most incredible news of the day, it was announced Farmer had been signed to a four-year contract. If you believe Farmer will be the Browns’ GM for four years, you’ll also believe Haslam’s going to name the downtown stadium after Art Modell.

Mike Lombardi (center) rarely addressed the media, with Joe Banner and Jimmy Haslam speaking about the Browns' front-office decisions. (Mark Duncan/AP)
Mike Lombardi (center) rarely addressed the media, with Joe Banner and Jimmy Haslam speaking about the Browns’ front-office decisions. (Mark Duncan/AP)

So let me explain this story the best I can. When Haslam was confirmed as owner in midseason 2012, he came from Pittsburgh, where the most valuable lesson he learned in his time as a Steeler majority owner was continuity. I chided him about that Tuesday in light of the revolving door in his own building, and he said, “You’re right. You’re right. That’s fair. I do know from previous experience how important continuity is. Right now, we have to make this change and suffer the pain.”

Haslam was paired with former Eagles president Banner, who wore out his welcome in Philadelphia after a long tenure with owner Jeffrey Lurie and coach Andy Reid. The headstrong Banner was looking to run a franchise on his own, and Haslam decided to take him on as day-to-day steward. Haslam disputes the commonly held view that his partnership with Banner was an arranged marriage, because he said he interviewed him and chose him; Banner, he said, was forced on him by no one.

But it was a shotgun marriage from the start, because Banner and Haslam needed each other. Sometimes that works, and sometime it doesn’t. One did this season, famously, with GM John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll in Seattle. This one, not so much. Banner convinced Haslam to hire Lombardi, disliked by many in Cleveland from his former tenure as GM with the Browns, and Lombardi came on board from his analyst’s role with NFL Network. Immediately Lombardi was a misfit. Except for special, one-off occasions, Lombardi was prevented from talking to the media, extremely odd for such a high-profile job in such a football-hungry town. On draft weekend, the front office looked stupid when someone granted Grantland’s Chuck Klosterman special access to cover the Cleveland draft room, then had it rescinded at the last minute. Wrote Klosterman: “The Browns live in a state of perpetual war, endlessly convincing themselves that every scrap of information they possess is some kind of game-changing superweapon that will alter lives and transmogrify the culture. They behave like members of a corporate cult.’’

Banner spent $5 million of Haslam’s money to totally revamp the second floor of the Browns’ training facility and offices—and to try to change the club’s philosophy. The Browns’ coaching, front-office, scouting, sales, PR and broadcast departments are all in an open campus. When a big sale was made, a bell was rung, and the sales team all clapped. The club had a live radio show in a $65,000 soundproof studio in the middle of it all. Banner toured me around the place last summer and said, “It’s the energy of feeling like something’s always happening, every day.”

So now two guys even the most ardent of Browns backers barely knew a month ago—Mike Pettine and Ray Farmer—constitute the Cleveland football braintrust. 

Then they began playing football, and nothing really changed. For the sixth straight season, the Browns lost at least 11 games. As the year went on, Banner thought coach Rob Chudzinski got promoted one time too many and was overmatched as a head coach. Word leaked at 3 p.m. on the last day of the season, during the last game, that Chudzinski could be fired after his first year, and five hours later, as the Browns returned to Cleveland from Pittsburgh, it happened. Team leader D’Qwell Jackson’s reaction: “We fired Chud? Are you kidding me?’’

Another coaching search. Three guys they liked—coordinators Josh McDaniels, Adam Gase and Dan Quinn—all pulled out with their teams still in play. None would say the truth: The job was toxic, and they all had good coaching jobs with solid teams. Lombardi, friends with McDaniels, went hard after the Patriots offensive coordinator again when New England lost in the AFC title game, but McDaniels stayed a Patriot.

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.

Last month, Haslam hired Mike Pettine, who will be the Browns' fourth head coach since 2009. (Nick Cammett/Getty Images)
Last month, Haslam hired Mike Pettine, who will be the Browns’ fourth head coach since 2009. (Nick Cammett/Getty Images)

So now two guys even the most ardent of Browns backers barely knew a month ago—then-Buffalo defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and Farmer—constitute the Cleveland football braintrust. For now, Farmer is in charge of cutting the roster and handing Pettine the final 53-man team. Pettine will be in charge of all game-day personnel decisions and deployment. For two guys who have never worked together, that bears watching.

Farmer is well-liked and respected as a personnel man. Until joining the Browns last year, he had worked in Kansas City as Scott Pioli’s assistant. He turned down Miami’s GM job recently, reportedly because he was offered only a two-year contract. Asked Tuesday about Miami at the news conference, Farmer went third-person, saying the Miami job “wasn’t right for Ray Farmer.” But Farmer’s friends say he’s not an ego guy.

Farmer earned Haslam’s respect with a strong interview in Cleveland after the Chiefs staff got blown up. “Smart, no ego, relates well to players,’’ said Haslam. Farmer got Haslam’s ear by standing with him at practice during the season and explaining personnel and scouting—and then by asking his counsel when he was considering taking the Miami GM job last month. The more Haslam thought about Farmer, the more he thought he was a valuable man he didn’t want to lose. Haslam started seriously considering making the changes last week.

A Browns free-agency meeting scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday was abruptly cancelled. It was Tuesday morning that Haslam delivered the news, which I’m told blew away both Banner and Lombardi. The owner told the staff in a 10 a.m. meeting, then told a news conference in the afternoon he was finished with major changes. After that, he and his staff—led by Farmer and Pettine, with club president Alec Scheiner and general counsel Sashi Brown—had their first organizational meeting, a session of about two hours.

It’s hard to imagine why the fans would have hope for a team in perpetual transition, but it’s Cleveland, and it’s football, and there are three draft picks in the top 35 to fantasize over.

“Ray was terrific in the meeting,’’ Haslam said. “He was as strong an individual as anyone in the room this afternoon.”

He’d better be. Haslam and Farmer now have to worry about calming the roiling waters around the team. It’s like there’s a moat around the Browns’ training center in suburban Berea, and alligators are swimming in it. In the past six weeks, the team has fired the entire coaching staff and the two biggest football people running the show. The coach is new, the coordinators are new, the offense (with a bruised Kyle Shanahan coming off an ugly year in Washington) is new. The Browns don’t have a quarterback of the future. They do have three draft picks in the top 35—Nos. 4, 26 and 35—with the prospect of trading two of those choices (or No. 4 plus next year’s first-rounder) to obtain the quarterback of their dreams. Unless, of course, that man is Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, coveted by Cleveland, and he goes to a team unwilling to trade down before the Browns have a chance to pick him.

Surprisingly, because of the local enmity for Banner and Lombardi, Haslam didn’t seem to be getting roasted Tuesday night in Cleveland, and I think the fans are probably right: Haslam reached the point where he thought Banner and Lombardi were impediments to success. When that happens, they’ve got to go.

But the other side, obviously, is how many times can you pull the cleaning-house rabbit out of the hat? Browns fans are numb to the mayhem by now. It’s hard to imagine why the fans would have hope for a team in perpetual transition, but it’s Cleveland, and it’s football, and there are three draft picks in the top 35 to fantasize over. Farmer, as a rookie GM, has a huge draft on his hands in just three months.

Assuming Farmer is still the general manager in three months.

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