Most Browns fans I know have a special hatred for Bill Belichick. I suppose some of this can be attributed to the handling of the Kosar situation or the team’s lackluster performance during a portion of his regime in Cleveland, but let’s call it what it is. The man continues to win. It’s difficult to witness a fan base experiencing so much jubilation during our matching stretch of futility.
I spent the duration of this past weekend’s AFC Championship game at a friend’s house, watching with certainty as the Patriots battled back and secured their overtime victory. The contest forced me to reflect on a question that seems to be recurring year after year: How in the world does this man keep winning? Cue the endless clips of talk-show hosts arguing over where to assign the credit. Is it Bill? What about Brady? I’ve even heard some go so far as to say New England’s owner Robert Kraft is responsible for orchestrating the dynasty. But I’m not referring to that debate. Life doesn’t exist in the black and white terms you see at 11 AM on ESPN. As I sat there and watched Belichick pass along the AFC Championship trophy like it was a skunk ready to spray, I thought about a quote I’d heard attributed to him. The verbiage may not be exact, but it went something like this:
“If we’re wrong together, we can still be right.”
Not only does it have a nice jingle, but it holds a lot of truth. Belichick and many of his assistants in Cleveland have said that they believed they were in the process of building something special prior to the move to Baltimore in 1996. Why? Ozzie Newsome summed it up best. “We were all on the same page.” After all, how can an organization reach its goal without everyone taking the same path to get there? All of this made me think back to the series of front office personnel the Browns have moved through since returning in 1999. Hearing Belichick’s words echo through my ears begged the question, have the expansion Browns ever been together? Right or wrong, have we experienced a front office that’s maintained a unanimous strategic approach?
The answer is not a soft no, but a resounding one. To the average fan, the franchise has experienced more chaos than Slyman’s on St. Patrick’s Day. Dysfunction should be every young fan’s middle name. Players could even wear it on the back of their jerseys. Naturally, one begins to wonder if the franchise has finally shaken the monkey off its back. Was this recent coaching change the machine that set the pins in order?
“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
-George Santayana, whoever that is.
Looking back lends us some perspective on the hiring of Freddie Kitchens. Studying our own mistakes allows us to learn, and by now, we should have knowledge pouring out of our ears. The task of creating a successful franchise is delegated to three parties, or as I like to call them, The Holy Triumvirate: Owner, General Manager, and Head Coach. There may also be an occasional straggler or substitute in the form of Team President and CEO. Working together, they will have infinitely more opportunity to succeed, while divided you get, well, The Cleveland Browns.
The return of the franchise saw the combination of Owner Al Lerner, CEO Carmen Policy, and Head Coach Chris Palmer. Right off the bat, Palmer clashed with Policy. Their main disagreement centered on the use of first overall pick and rookie quarterback Tim Couch. Policy believed in sitting the Heisman finalist, while Palmer was set on throwing him into the fire. The latter won out and Couch wilted under the lackluster performance of his offensive line.
Later, Butch Davis filled the empty chair left by Palmer and became Head Coach as well as de facto General Manager. Al Lerner succumbed to brain cancer during the 2002 season, leaving his son to maintain the struggling franchise. Lerner and Policy jarred early which eventually lead to the CEO’s exit. The younger Lerner continued to show a blatant lack of consistency in his ownership. Originally, he granted large extensions to a handful of key players. Later, he sought to cut the team’s payroll by a paltry $30 million. Davis resigned amongst rumors of Lerner’s growing distaste for the Head Coach, riding off into the sunset with $12 million in guaranteed pay.
This level of dysfunction was a constant during the former owner’s regime, culminating in the disastrous pairing of Head Coach Eric Mangini and President Mike Holmgren. The two worked together for just over a year. It was enough time to sink the former’s ship and remind fans that dark days still loomed ahead. Mangini was hired after a decent run with the New York Jets. His first season was an abysmal one with the team earning a 5-11 record. His second ended with the same result and was dismissed in January 2011. Mangini and Holmgren differed in the way they approached both offense and defense. The President favored a 4-3 scheme and a short passing game. Mangini utilized a 3-4 and ran a more traditional offense. Afterward, Holmgren’s situation did not improve with the hiring of Pat Shurmur. The rookie head coach went 4-12 in his first season. By then Randy Lerner had grown tired of owning the Browns. Moves were being made behind the scenes that ultimately lead to the departure of Holmgren, and the gutting of the organization’s front office.
Finally, the embattled Lerner sold the team in 2012 to Jimmy Haslam. Unfortunately for Browns fans, the dysfunction passed along to the new ownership. Jimmy and Dee would go through a handful of Head Coaches and GMs. These would be the Heckerts, the Lombardi’s, and the Farmers of the world. They’d also throw a few coaches into Cleveland’s perennial revolving door, blowing through three in four years. The only constant was inconsistency, and no one was safe. This brings us to the most recent ex-BMOC.
Hue Jackson came into Berea with high expectations as the new Head Coach. His shotgun marriage with General Manager Sashi Brown turned out to be devastating. Jackson was known as a quarterback whisperer and an innovative offensive mind, but most importantly, he was a football guy. The new age analytics system championed by Brown and Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta clashed with the Head Coach’s lack of patience. The front office wanted to tear down the roster and start from scratch. Their Head Coach wanted desperately to win. The disagreement in strategy was compounded by Haslam’s management structure, which forced both the General Manager and Head Coach to report to him directly. During the disastrous 2017 season, Jackson campaigned for a quarterback. He managed to convince the front office to trade for Cincinnati backup AJ McCarron. The trade was agreed upon by both parties, but the proper paperwork was not sent to the league office in time, thus rendering the agreement null and void. Sources close to the situation claimed Brown intentionally sabotaged the agreement, as it would have cost him a second and third round pick in the following year’s draft. If this is true, the front office’s strategy of accumulating draft picks and Jackson’s ‘win now’ approach resulted in one of the more embarrassing occurrences in recent memory. Haslam realized something had to be done. He fired Brown before the end of 2017.
Enter John Dorsey. The new General Manager came into his role with a confidence that calmed the franchise. Still, issues followed as yet another shotgun marriage ensued, this time between Jackson and his newly appointed offensive coordinator, Todd Haley. Haley was not a Jackson hire and had a history of being difficult to work with. Reports arose of the two having ongoing disagreements. Fans were even treated to a glimpse of one during HBO’s Hard Knocks. Rumors swirled around the two’s relationship, one of which claimed that Haley was blatantly ignoring any instruction given by the Head Coach.
Dorsey recognized the gravity of the situation, focusing on how the standoff would affect the development of Baker Mayfield. Haslam agreed that they should make a change, but was not completely sold on getting rid of Jackson. Dorsey stressed that the situation needed to be reconciled and that a partial solution would only result in a partial success. On October 29th, both coaches were relieved of their duties. While addressing the media following their release, Haslam referenced a new spin on our perception of dysfunction, labeling the clash in personalities as ‘Internal discord’.
The Browns finished their season with a 5-3 record, contrasting the 2-5-1 results under Jackson. On January 12th, Freddie Kitchens was announced as the new Head Coach of the team, which brings us to today. What have we learned from our tortured past? Hopefully enough to guarantee we don’t repeat it.
The current structure is reason enough to be optimistic. For the first time during his ownership, Haslam did not take a central role during the press conference announcing the hiring of his new coach. He appears to be stepping back and handing both reins to Dorsey, who in turn has continued to fill the roster with young talent. In the past, a strong General Manager has rarely had the opportunity to hire a head coach. Even if they did, one or the other was not around long enough to instill positive change.
Not only did Dorsey select Kitchens for the job, but the two also worked together to assemble an impressive coaching staff. Dorsey also stated that the two will work in a traditional management structure, meaning the Head Coach will report directly to him, not Haslam. The door has been shut on a potential power struggle between Kitchens and Dorsey. The General Manager is calling the shots, and thank goodness, the Owner is letting him.
The Triumvirate is moving together in the right direction: forward. Kitchens has Dorsey’s trust, and Dorsey has Haslam’s. The path has been cleared of distractions and the three can focus on the task at hand. Pair this with the roster’s talent, a massive chunk of CAP space, and a plethora of draft picks, and you have an opportunity for success. Even better, the Browns will travel to Foxborough in 2019 and take on the New England Patriots. See you soon Bill. I hope you like the taste of your own medicine.