As is our usual humorous strategy on Browns television game day, my son and I looked for a go-to program to switch to during the countless interruptions in the game. You know how that goes, 200 channels and nothing to watch. After I gave up, willing to settle for the mute button, he picked Zombieland, the 2009 zombie comedy. I will leave it to the reader to fill in the punch line here.
Calling the Browns-Ravens game for Monday Night Football, Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden were not shy in their assessments of what’s been wrong with the Cleveland Browns since their return to the NFL in 1999, but they covered mostly familiar territory with their description of the team’s lack of continuity in the front office and with head coaches, combined with their unrivaled poor performance on the field and in building a roster. As is par for the course with such talking points, however, such analysis can be tiresome when precious little is offered in the way of remedies. The reason for this, I suspect, is that, except for a few outspoken ruffians, the media doesn’t generally point the finger at owners, the ones at whose mahogany desks the buck stops.
“1964 was a good year, Mike. Mick Jaggar. Jim Brown. Championship football here in Ohio. It’d be exciting if this franchise could come back, get the energy that it once had. But it’s going to take great players and great people, and—uh—we’ll see what happens.”
— Jon Gruden, November 30, 2015
If the Browns’ deficiencies run the gamut (and they most certainly do), how, precisely, does a new Browns quarterback produce a running attack that is even minimally effective? How does a quarterback mitigate his team’s ineffectiveness at stopping the opponent’s running game or pressuring the opponent’s passer? And what can he do to reduce the relentless pressure and hard hits he’ll endure every game? In fact, how does a newly minted face of the franchise even survive a full season without a competent line to protect him?
We need not continue beating a dead horse. A talented, savvy, smart, experienced quarterback can accomplish only so much for a team that excels at almost nothing. The correct answer to the question of what the Browns need to improve is “just about everything.” And if that’s the case, we are talking about leadership, beginning at the top.
Successful business people generally know their product or service well because they produce it, or at least oversee its production. They are thoroughly involved with their brainchild, from conception to marketing. Owners of NFL teams, however, do not fall into such a category. Except for those who have been immersed in the game for decades, or perhaps for generations, and who have somehow managed to hire (and be kept up to speed by) some of the genuine movers and shakers of the game, there just isn’t enough expertise for an owner to make him a truly qualified CEO in the traditional sense. He is more of an investor than a hands-on CEO. What he most needs, then, is someone who has a football background, someone who, on the one hand, is conversant with the big-picture issues (like how the game fits into the culture at-large) and, on the other hand, one who is extremely detail oriented about the game itself.
On some teams the general managers might fill that role. Elsewhere, it might be the head coach. Somewhere else it might be the team president. Most teams, undoubtedly, have settled on some form of shared responsibility. Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam seems to have settled on the latter, but he is also confronted with the disconcerting fact that team President Alec Scheiner, General Manager Ray Farmer, and Head Coach Mike Pettine are all novices in their respective roles. Add to that the fact that Haslam himself is new to the game and the result is an organization without either institutional memory or the steady hand of experience. And the inexperience shows — on the field and off.
From doubts being raised about the the Browns draft picks and other player acquisitions, to the questions about schemes and player performance, to the flubs at the micro-level (game-clock management, for example), to the anti-social behavior of the face-of-the-franchise-in-training, the entire team looks immature and unsteady. Even the rollout of the new-look uniforms was viewed by many as overplayed.
For those fans who are reprising their role as the Queen of Hearts (“Off with their heads!”) there is no guarantee whatsoever that there would be any suitable replacements for the beheaded waiting in the wings. Word does get around, you know.
And yet Jimmy Haslam might be drawn into Alice’s Wonderland once again by the notion that someone has to pay. It may be a tough call. When there are so many outward signs of the absence of basic competence, the elephant in the room is whether or not the team is learning from its mistakes or is simply incapable of correcting them. And how would an owner such as Jimmy Haslam tell the difference?
The day after Patriots wide receiver/punt returner Chris Harper lost a fumble to the Broncos in New England’s loss to Denver on Sunday night, Bill Belichick released him from the team. “Off with their heads.” Maybe someone like King Belichick can feel confident wielding the ax, but with the Browns?
There is a possible alternative, however, that doesn’t involve blowing things up, which Haslam has suggested he would strive to avoid. Could there be someone around the game, no longer putting in the hundred hours per week as a head coach or GM, who is capable of analyzing and advising the team about how to go about filling in some of the gaps in institutional memory, team philosophy and performance? Willing to work full time but not looking for a five-year contract?
In recognition of the group’s lack of experience such an advisor could serve in the role of mentor for a year or two. He could acknowledge the elephants in the room. He could have the authority to raise uncomfortable questions, even to make the incumbents squirm. The key, however, is in the details.
The details. Every successful coach — in fact, every successful anything — involves thoroughness of the work and learning from the mistakes.
What would such an advisor say about the team’s drafting and other player acquisitions since 2014? And what has the team learned about roster building?
Why, after announcing your intention to build a team identity around strong defense/strong running game has the team looked like a victim of identity theft?
Oh, and as for your quarterbacks, what are you looking for in such a talent and how far are you willing to stray from the NFL prototype?
And if the quarterback is as important as people say he is, why have you not protected him better with players, play-calling, schemes … whatever? Why does your team look like one that needs four QBs just to get through a single season?
Yes, Mike Holmgren was probably expected to fill such a role with the Browns when he was named president on December 21, 2009, but by the time of his departure after the 2012 season, it can hardly be said of him that he set in motion an organization that would become known for continuity and a clear sense of its identity. Just the opposite it turns out.
After the storied history of the Cleveland Browns stopped, and then restarted, the questions remain about the team’s identity. Will the team ever get beyond its current Queen of Hearts approach? Speaking of storied history, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll turned 150 this year, so here I’ll give Alice the final say: “Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”