Balancing the present and the future of the Cleveland Browns

Joe Banner

Banner Chud 1

I think the perception of me is that I’ve become a Browns “hater.” I think I now get lumped into the crowd of negative people who I used to debate when it came time to try and make sense of this Cleveland franchise. When fans and commentators were seeking immediate results from Eric Mangini, I said it would be impossible to rebuild the team over night. Then when Mike Holmgren came in, I said the same thing. Eric Mangini was fired and Pat Shurmur was hired. I was confused too, but I said, “Hey, it isn’t like Mike Holmgren would be trying to lose. You’ve got to give it some time to see if it’s a good hire.” Of course, I also warded off what I thought was reflexive negativity involving Bob LaMonte and his influence in all the hiring decisions. All that patience and benefit of the doubt was rewarded with the worst coach in the NFL and a five-win 2012 season when those guys had their last chance to prove they weren’t garbage to be put on the curb by the impending Joe Banner-led crew. That being my immediate experience, I admit that my default position is no longer as forgiving as it once was.

It’s not totally fair. I know in my head and in my heart that this is the most competently built Cleveland Browns organization we’ve seen since 1999. Like him or not, Joe Banner is absolutely qualified for his position as CEO of the Browns. Rob Chudzinski was an undoubtedly qualified candidate to be an NFL head coach and he brought with him the coordinators to garner patience and credibility. Even as it’s easy to crack jokes about an invisible Michael Lombardi, he’s qualified for the role he’s in. They doubled down on the position when given the chance by grabbing Ray Farmer as Assistant GM. Add in the superstar business folks that the Browns have added, and it even makes me wonder what the hell my problem is at times.

One of the biggest takeaways that I had from the Sloan Sports Analytics conference last year was about not being obsessed with short-term results. This applies to both positive and negative results. The idea is that you need a culture and business plan in place that keeps you focused on an ultimate direction or goal while not making missteps chasing fool’s gold.

Comparatively, one of the biggest criticisms of large publicly traded corporations is that they obsess about hitting quarterly targets in order to keep their analysts and stockholders happy with consistent and decent news. This news, in turn, keeps the stock from taking huge negative hits or being overly volatile. It seems like a decent enough goal, but with some companies it feels like they make bad choices for the long-term health of their organizations by being obsessed with those quarterly deadlines. Many critics are left wondering what heights companies and stocks could reach with a directive aimed much further into the future than the next quarterly earnings conference call.

So that works against my criticisms too, right? Should I really be concerned with the Browns winning in 2013 at all? I certainly think so.

The other night at the Happy Dog, a diamond of an establishment on Cleveland’s near west side, I spoke with Esquire’s Scott Raab and FOX Sports Ohio’s Zac Jackson on a sports panel and asked the two if there was ever a justification for losing in the NFL. The question came from a place of me thinking that this Browns regime hasn’t paid nearly enough attention to winning today as they put more and more emphasis on the 2014 draft. Jackson said unequivocally that yes, sometimes losing games is smart. He cited a pretty specific example of the 2011 Jacksonville Jaguars beating the Colts on the final game of the season. The Jags “improved” to 5-11 having beaten division rival Indianapolis twice that year. Changing the outcome of just those two games would have given the Jags three wins and the Colts four. There are too many moving pieces to play it all out again, but the point remains that sometimes being a little too good can keep a team away from a player like Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III.

I can’t disagree with that assessment, of course. At the same time, I’m pretty sure that’s the exception that proves the rule. Back to the Wall Street example: Sometimes companies choose to lose money for a quarter. Maybe they’re investing in research and development or enhancing physical assets like buildings or equipment. Is that similar to losing in a season in order to get a higher draft pick and make the future even better? Maybe. Maybe not. At some point though, if a company keeps losing money quarter after quarter, the stock continues to drop and shareholders disappear. Of course, it is not a good idea for anyone to lose all the time. Wouldn’t it make sense for the guys coming in to do the turnaround to stop the bleeding first? I think so.

They’ve set things up better than anyone else with people that make some sense in their various positions. It still seems important to keep the pressure on though. They’ve got a lot riding on the 2014 draft and if they don’t hit home runs, we very well might find ourselves reliving the continually miserable, non-playoff football seasons that have plagued Cleveland since 1999. And despite what the Colts achieved with the Andrew Luck draft pick, winning is always preferable to losing. They lost at the perfect time and basically just for one single season. If losing was a formula for eventually winning, the Browns would have had a few spectacular seasons instead of just a couple better-than-average ones.

I just think it’s important for people to know where I’m coming from. I really do think—despite some concerns—that this is the best group to inhabit Berea since 1999. If it was a different time and place, I’d be writing about how 2013 doesn’t even matter. It’s not this group’s fault, but I just don’t have that in me anymore. I’m getting more selfish and greedy as we go on, and I’m definitely not going to apologize for it.

  • Ben Frambaugh

    You are a fan and have every right to feel as hopeful or disgruntled as you want. I like the direction this team is going…but that doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes question some of their decisions. I actually liked the Mangini hire…and thought he wasn’t necessarily given a fair shake…but I also questioned a lot of what he did. That’s just the nature of the beast.

  • mgbode

    it is a pretty easy separation for me. the FO should be thinking about the long-term goal of building a sustainable contender. the coaching staff should be thinking about the short-term goal of competing on a week-to-week basis (some long-term thoughts need to be here, but overall it’s short-term).

    so, the FO can handcuff the coaches (Curtis Painter, your week1 starting QB for the Colts), but the coaching staff doesn’t try to win. the sticky part gets to if the FO should go to the trainers and tell them to hold out players longer than they normally would (see Cavs and Irving comments past couple years). If the coaching staff is on-board, then that can work. Otherwise, it just creates a tension point.

  • BenRM

    I hate to use this as an excuse, but this year, more than any in recent memory, injury has played a pretty big role in the Browns being “the same terrible team.” Particularly so on offense, which is where the bulk of the problems for this team exist.

    – I think Dion Lewis was where they wanted to go with the RB position this year since they weren’t high on Trent (and rightfully so). He’s dead.
    – Pinkston and Lavao caused us to watch the early season Cousins debacle, and now they’re playing catch-up. I’m not sure anyone could have expected Schwartz to regress to the level he has after how strong he looked last year.
    – Most significantly, Hoyer was the Weeden back up plan. And it looked like a good plan for 2.5 weeks. But it’s dead too.

    I think this season looks a whole lot different if we (A) had a QB who looked competent and kept the WRs engaged and (B) had a running game that didn’t come off the scrap heap.

  • CB Everett

    Nice work Craig. I liked the level-headed analysis, something which we are all guilty of veering away from with the high emotions that come with our Browns fandom.

    As for the winning-losing-drafting analysis: I think the Colts are a great study. A perennial winner with core talent and great organizational pieces. Manning goes down, and they are misleadingly bad, leading to Luck…then leading to a sudden re-emergence. Not completely analogous, but I see now than any time since ’99 that we have the core talent to win, and to make a leap if and when we get our QB. So if we’re going to lose out and draft {insert 1 of 6 candidates], at least there’s that comfort.

  • MrCleaveland

    Good article, Craig. I’ve never thought of you as a Browns hater, just a realistic fan.

    I want to quibble over one thing: By saying that sometimes it’s “smart” to lose, you imply that losing is the goal. Losing can never be the goal, regardless of how beneficial it might be later on. So there’s a difference between “smart” and “beneficial.” End of quibble.

    Again, good job.

  • Harv 21

    agree. I’ve come to believe that while a lost season may create potential benefit, losing as consistently as the Browns leaves a toxic residue throughout an organization. Good players have a schizophrenic outlook of longing to be on winner like in college while not trusting that those around them know how to get there or whether the coaching staff will even survive another year . And, of course, the reward for losing is high draft picks, which don’t make you a winner. Good drafting does that.

  • BenRM

    I think a caveat should be added: “a lost season may create potential benefit so long as the front office is competent.”

    For as many lost seasons as the Browns have had, they should have seen a far greater benefit. But with constant rollover in the FO (due in part to the owner being incapable of hiring a competent FO), the lost seasons have created the toxic air you mention.

  • dwhit110

    I get where you’re coming from Craig. To keep following the analogy that you started, it’s like you were completely willing to understand the investments in R&D for a quarter that caused the company to take a loss… but it turned out that the company was just being run by bad businessmen who weren’t doing a good job of making money, and continued to take losses quarter after quarter.

    Now it’s harder to trust the new guys even though we’ve seen some of their ideas payoff (the strong staff, the 3-4, Hoyer, the gameday experience) because we’ve heard the rigamarole explaining away the losses that we’ve taken so many other times by front offices that we ultimately shouldn’t have trusted. Hard to keep having blind faith when it’s been burned so many times.

  • mgbode

    you bring up some good points, but if the FO was relying on Dion Lewis as a “solution” at RB rather than a role, then they were flawed in their thinking.

  • mgbode

    losing isn’t a goal, but acquiring talent is surely a goal. sometimes, the best way of acquiring talent is through losing games.

  • BenRM

    Maybe. Without seeing anything but pre-season games, it’s hard for me to say. Assuming they were always going to trade trent, you have to agree that this (Lewis, Hardesty, Obie) looks better than this (McGahee, Obie, Whichever scrapheap RB we have for the week)

  • Harv 21

    and if the FO is competent, a lost season will be an outlier.

    BTW, now that the scales have fallen from our eyes regarding Heckert’s 2012 draft, there’s not a deposed FO whose demise we should regret as premature. Just because the replacement was incompetent doesn’t mean the axing was unjustified. Just means a competent organization starts at the top, the very top.

  • RyInCBus

    I’m glad you wrote this Craig. It has helped clear up some misconceptions out there, I do believe. However, the one point I have to take issue with is where you said “it’s still important to keep the pressure on”. I don’t get it. As if the guys in Berea feel zero pressure to win and build a competent organization that we fans, bloggers, and media alike have to continually remind them that losing WILL NOT BE TOLERATED!! This is silly. It’s the NFL. There is an incredible amount of pressure to win in this league. Its not for a lack of trying… unless you’re Mike Holmgren, apparently.

    This idea of “keeping the pressure on” stems from what I believe is a sense of entitlement that exists out there among us. The same sense of entitlement that pressured Randy Lerner to make all the knee jerk moves he made over the years, each ending in horrible disappointment and disaster. Maybe, its just me but I’d rather have a group of people in Berea who don’t listen to fan threats and cave to pressure to do things a certain way. Trust your research, set your goals, and go out there and work every day to achieve them, regardless of pressure from the outside. That’s what successful organizations do.

    I guess I could go on and on but what it boils down to is, for a sports market that hasn’t won a championship in 50 years, we sure seem to think we know what it takes. I’m less than convinced.

  • 216in614

    I didn’t really watch the Colts that year but they had to be tanking on purpose right?

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Of course and they were wise to have done it.

  • CB Everett

    I don’t know. They were 10-6 or 11-5 the year before and had all their usual horses and were primed to do their usual deal—-but absolutely ZERO backup plan when Manning was out. I didn’t watch a lot, but I remember they had the likes of Kerry Collins and Curtis Painter. Having one of those clowns running that offense was like, well…very Weedenesque.

  • MrCleaveland

    Yes, mg, I think we all realize that. Nevertheless . . .

  • Steve

    Absolutely agree. “Keeping the pressure on” which has been more or less complaining weekly, won’t make anybody train, scout, or negotiate better. You know how you can pressure the franchise? Stop buying tickets or putting the game on your television.

  • dan

    While there can be an advantage to having the worst record in the NFL in certain years when circumstances are just right — as happened to Indy in the year when there was a QB rated as worthy of the number one pick in the draft, and it turned out that Andrew Luck rather than Jamarcus Russell was that QB — there is no advantage to going 5-11 rather than 8-8. Or, more technically, the advantage of building off of an 8-8 season so greatly outweighs the marginal draft advantage that comes from going 5-11 that outside of the Browns’ fan base, who you would think had seen enough 5-11 drafts to know better, there is no dispute that 8-8 is preferable.

    I thought when last season ended that 8-8 was a reasonable goal for 2013, and have seen nothing since that changes my opinion that (a) 8-8 was achievable, and (b) the long-term prospects for the franchise would be better, rather than worse, if that goal were achieved.

  • So do you think the sense of urgency is any different in bigger media markets or notoriously tough media markets?

  • I don’t believe they tanked. I think Manning’s injury exposed their pitiful head coach while simultaneously depressing the whole team with the play of Kerry Collins and Curtis Painter. Jim Caldwell was always carried by Peyton Manning I think. When he no longer had Peyton running one side of the ball, he was left with no place to hide.

    That team was going to take a step back without Manning, but they had Freeney, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Pierre Garcon, and more. So, it’s possible that all those players bought into tanking, but I think it’s far more likely that they were demoralized by the play at QB and the losing became an infection.

  • CBI

    The Colts were 10-6 in 2010, 2-14 in 2011, and 11-5 in 2012. I know no other position has a greater impact on a football team than quarterback, but a 8 or 9 game difference? Seems a little too big of a swing. I mean if you put Manning or Luck on last years Browns are they all of a sudden a 12+ win team? I think the Cots saw what they wanted (Luck) and made it happen.

  • Steve

    I’d say no. If anyone is changing their decision because some beat writer is whining more excessively than usual, they deserve to get fired on the spot. Certain members of the FO may value winning right now differently, but I don’t think that has anything to do with the media in the market.

  • dan

    Actually, winning games is a goal and acquiring talent is a means to achieving that goal. And as for whether losing games is the best way to achieve those means, see my comment elsewhere to this post.

  • mgbode

    except that Hardesty has an extensive injury history and Lewis is too small for everydown carries. all I’m saying is they shouldn’t be surprised to be in this situation.

  • mgbode

    they also made no effort to find a formidable backup when it was clear Peyton would have issues that year and did little in FA as well. many thought they were holding guys out longer than needed with injuries that year, etc. there were some really good articles outlining the tanking that year.

  • BenRM

    Perhaps not surprised to be in this situation at some point, but to lose your entire backfield (absent a bad TRich) before the season begins is something that can’t really be “planned for”.

    Likewise, I couldn’t kill them for Cousins. When you lose your starters, your back-ups are going to suck, because there are your backups. If they were good, they’d be starters.

  • mgbode

    yes, agreed. it is a sometimes thing. but, there is a definitive difference in the probability of good 1st round picks the higher up you are in the draft. of course, you still need to pick the right guy.

  • It’s not like changing one decision from a yes to a no, but I can’t believe for a second any of these guys live in a bubble where they’re completely and totally immune. We’re talking about an industry where we KNOW of examples of guys calling reporters. I’m not saying that’s healthy, but to think that there’s no influence what-so-ever is kind of goofy too, I think.

  • mgbode

    not so sure. we have seen a 1-11 start have 4 wins to “build” to end a season. I don’t think season-to-season momentum matters much in the professional world of the NFL.

    and, there is some value into the higher pick or we would value all 1st round picks and 2nd round picks equally. as can be seen from trades, this is not the case.

    now, I don’t want Chud/Norv/Ray to care one lick about any of that. they should be trying their best to win this weekend and all weekends.

  • Steve

    No definitive examples are coming to my mind at the moment, so I’m asking for an example.

    I think it may go the other way fairly often. A certain team makes “win-now” moves, and the media, and fans, see that and expect it, and become tougher on anything that isn’t “win-now”. The team only continues to go “win-now” because that’s how they usually operate.

  • Pat Shurmur rang up Dustin Fox last year, for example.

  • dan

    And if the Browns had finished that season 3-13 (the worst record they can have this year, and still not bad enough to get the top pick), which player taken ahead of Joe Haden would you have them take, that would make the team clearly better than they are today?

    There were a lot of problems with the Browns in 2010, but that they were not drafting high enough to get a good player at a position of need was not one of them.

  • Derek

    “demoralized by the play at QB”- That sounds familiar

  • Steve

    Missed that story completely, but how much of that is that Fox was a former NFL player, and not really a reporter?

  • scripty

    Banner looks at every player, every piece of cap space and every draft choice as an asset and seeks to maximize the value of assets, feeling if you consistently maximize the value of all assets then eventually you’ll need to go where you need to go. They also feel you need a “championship-level” QB if you want to win consistently (i.e. sustainably) is the number one asset to get. The short-term/long-term success/failures are a result of those philosophies. The short-term failure idea you mention is merely a measurement of “risk” they take when making decisions on valuation of an asset. You have some good ideas here but they aren’t necessarily in order in the decision-making process of the Browns (i.e. Joe Banner).

  • Bourn, Michael Bourn

    Lewis, Lauvao and Pinkston are all below average players, so I have trouble attributing the browns struggles to their absence. The only really unfortunate injury was Hoyer, which obviously hurt us tremendously.

    Lewis was a backup last year with Philly and after McCoy got injured, Bryce Brown got the job. I believe Brown fumbled like 4 times in 2 games and yet they still stuck with him over Lewis. I’m not saying this makes him a terrible player, but temper your expectations with him.

    Upgrading the Lauvao/Pinkston situation should be a major priority for Banner this offseason. Greco is decent, but these two are definite backups.

    Let’s not forget some of the devastating injuries we’ve had over the last 5 years (Winslow, Edwards, Jurevicius, Bentley, Baxter, D’qwell, Benard, Steinbach, Gocong, Taylor, Ward).