Staff, quarterbacks, and even a uniform change aren’t enough to rescue the Browns from The Factory of Sadness.
Don’t worry Cleveland fans, I am not going to write another article re-hashing the Drive, The Fumble, Red Right 88, and The Move. The fact that I mentioned them in the first sentence say a lot, but that’s low hanging fruit…there has to be something more to the Browns losing culture.
Some history is necessary for all of this to make sense, so bear with me.
I could easily start with Art Modell, the firing of Paul Brown, or the early retirement of Jim Brown, and yes, all of these things eventually led to the problems of the current incarnation of the Browns. But if I had to put my finger on one thing…charge one person with the misery and disappointment of an entire city, the answer is easy.
Randy’s father, Al Lerner, was a hero to this Browns fan. Lerner was, like myself, a Marine, and had actually bailed Art Modell out in 1986 by buying part of Stadium Corp, which held the lease on the original home of The Browns, Municipal Stadium.
The elder Lerner also tried to buy The Browns from Modell before he moved the team. Modell could then take that money and buy an expansion team which he would put in Baltimore to replace the Colts who left in 1984.
That was the plan at least…
What actually happened is history. The Browns were on the rise, Bill Belichick had assembled a staff that was essentially a “who’s who” list of future NFL coaching names, and while the Cavs and Indians both had new homes, Municipal Stadium was crumbling.
Browns fans after the announcement that the Browns were moving to Baltimore.
Dismantling the Dawg Pound during the fourth quarter of the Browns final home game.
Bye bye Brownies…
Its funny that Modell wanted so badly to bring a team back to Baltimore that he eventually ended up stealing a team from Cleveland to make Baltimore whole. To add insult to injury, Modell and the Baltimore Ravens raised the Lombardi trophy as Super Bowl champions just a few years later in 2000.
Countdown to ’99
Al Lerner got the “new” Browns that made their debut in 1999 as an expansion team in the shiny new stadium that Modell so badly wanted. With Carmen Policy as part owner and running football operations, Dwight Clark was brought in as General Manager and Chris Palmer as head coach.
First Energy Stadium on opening day 1999.
This brings us to 2002, when things start to go downhill.
The honeymoon period where Clevelanders were just glad to have their team back, and there was an understanding that they were an expansion team and wouldn’t have success right away, was over.
Head coaching carousel begins
In 2001 Chris Palmer was fired after only two years.
Butch Davis was brought in after turning around the Miami Hurricanes program, and things were starting to look up. In typical Cleveland fashion, Al Lerner died in 2002 of brain cancer. This led to Cleveland getting its own cancer…Randy Lerner.
In 2002 the Browns made their only playoff appearance since returning to the league. In 2003 they were a 5-11 team and Lerner decided to make major front office changes. Carmen Policy resigned citing the front office culture after Al Lerner’s death, and would be replaced by John Collins. Policy leaving also led to several other executives making their exit.
In 2004, 12 games into the season Butch Davis resigned. So far Lerner hadn’t fired anyone of any significance, they had all quit because of the negative culture Randy had brought to the team.
A quick note that I think it is important to understand about Randy Lerner before moving on- without his father Al, he was nothing. After becoming chairman of MBNA, Al made Randy director. When Al died, Randy became director. Also when Al died, Randy inherited the Browns.
In early 2005 the Browns brought in Phil Savage from Baltimore to be the team’s new General Manager. The move received much praise from Browns fans. Savage was looked at as a player personnel genius who had drafted the likes of Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Jamal Lewis for the Ravens.
A few weeks later Romeo Crennel, the defensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, was hired as head coach. Another move that at the time was seen as a win for the Browns.
Finally some optimism in Berea…
Unfortunately Phil Savage, the draft genius, couldn’t repeat his earlier success in Cleveland.
In his first draft in 2005 Savage took Braylon Edwards at no.3 (one Pro Bowl), and Charlie Frye (University of Akron quarterback) in the third round.
In 2006 the Browns selected Kamerion Wimbley with their first pick…didn’t work out so well.
2007 brought the one huge success of the Phil Savage era, the drafting of perennial Pro Bowler Joe Thomas in the first round. However, he did follow that up with Notre Dame quarterback, and NFL bust, Brady Quinn in the second round.
It is important to know that in 2006 Randy Lerner bough controlling interest in Premier League team Aston Villa FC. Apparently while he was going to Cambridge he fell in love with football (soccer), so he bought a team that he was really passionate about. How did that work out? Aston Villa was relegated in 2016 and Lerner sold the team shortly after. I am bringing this up because it was widely known in Cleveland that Lerner was only interested in Aston Villa and left the running of the Browns to other people.
The Browns managed to catch lightning in a bottle for one year in 2007 behind the play of quarterback Derek Anderson. They finished 10-6, only missing the playoffs because they lost a second tie-breaker to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. The Browns also had by far their most Pro Bowl selections (six) since returning in 1999.
Browns Pro Bowlers Joe Thomas, Derek Anderson, Joshua Cribbs, Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow and Ryan Pontbriand
Unfortunately it was one and done for the Browns success and they finished a more than disappointing 4-12 the very next year.
Long list of quarterbacks
Sadly the owner of this jersey quit adding names several quarterbacks ago.
In 2008 Pro Bowler Derek Anderson shared starts with Ken Dorsey and Brady Quinn. Instability at quarterback is one sure fire way to foster a losing culture. At the end of the 2008 season the Browns lost their last six games, but believe it or not something else happened that was much worse for the Browns as a franchise.
Staph infection anyone?
TE Kellen Winslow came down with his second staph infection since 2005 and WR Joe Jurevicius had a staph infection that was so bad it essentially ended his career.
Obviously some very serious questions about the cleanliness and sanitation procedures at the Browns training facility in Berea were brought up. Do you see the New England Patriots, or *gulp* the Pittsburgh Steelers with six key players sidelined with staph in five years? I think not.
When Pro Bowl WR Joe Jurevicius sued the franchise for his gnarly staph infection in his knee, the Browns reputation took a major blow. Jurevicius wasn’t the only player whose career was ended fully or in part due to his infection. Pro Bowl C LeCharles Bentley was signed as a free agent from the New Orleans Saints and tore a ligament in his knee in training camp. The subsequent staph infection, that Bentley says were “life threatening”, meant that he not only never played a snap for the Browns, but he ended up out of football shortly after.
Maybe a new GM will help?
After yet another controversy involving a series of e-mails between a Browns fan and Phil Savage, Lerner gave both Crennel and Savage the boot.
Enter the Man-genius. Former New York Jets coach Eric Mangini, from the Bill Belichick coaching tree, was yet another guy that the Browns brought in who had significant success’ elsewhere, but failed miserably in Cleveland.
In Mangini’s first season in 2009, the Browns lost 11 of their first 12 games. Somehow they managed to win their final four, including a win over the hated Steelers in week 17, which was just enough to earn Mangini a stay of execution.
That offseason Lerner brought in Mike Holmgren as team president. Great move right? Holmgren won a Super Bowl with Brett Favre in Green Bay, then more importantly brought Seattle from one of the worst in the league to a Super Bowl team.
Once again, someone who had nothing but success in his career comes to Cleveland and fails miserably.
So Mike Holmgren brings in Tom Heckert as the GM to replace George Kokinis. I didn’t even mention Kokinis because he wasn’t in Cleveland long, and lets be honest, he didn’t do squat. The carousel continues to turn…..
Under Holmgren and Heckert the Browns missed again on a quarterback early in the draft, this time with Colt McCoy. At least McCoy, along with Derek Anderson, has had a career as a half way decent back-up in the league.
January of 2011 brought another 5-11 finish for the Browns which was enough to cost Mangini his job.
Obviously another coordinator with no head coaching experience was the answer, so the Browns hired Pat Shurmur. To be honest Shurmur didn’t have much of a shot from the get-go. The league shortened the offseason that year due to contract negotiations with the NFL Players Association so he had no chance to install his offense and work with Colt McCoy.
Draft futility is a franchise killer
Good franchises build through the draft. The Steelers, the Ravens as mentioned earlier, and the current Raiders and Cowboys are perfect examples.
In 2012, the Browns drafted Trent Richardson third overall and 28 year old quarterback Brandon Weeden with the 22nd. Richardson is out of the league already and Weeden recently joined the Houston Texans who just blew up their quarterback corps and started over. Needless to say, Weeden is near the bottom of the depth chart.
In 2012, Cleveland’s “Randy Lerner cancer” thankfully went into remission. Tennessee native Jimmy Haslam bought the team, and while there was some brief optimism, it didn’t last long.
Jimmy Haslam (center) and Mike Holmgren (right)
The first thing Haslam did was come out and say that Holmgren would retire at the end of the season and he would be bringing in Joe Banner as the teams chief executive. It was the middle of the season, so is Banner running the show, or is Heckert in charge? Why is Holmgren waiting until the end of the season to retire, and why announce it now? Why make the hiring of Banner known now? Haslam is a successful business owner, he’s no dummy.
More instability in the front office.
The day after the season ended, Shurmur and Heckert were fired. Rob Chudzinski, who was the offensive coordinator during Cleveland’s outstanding 2007 season, was brought in as the next Browns head coach and Mike Lombardi as Vice President of Player Personnel and eventually GM. Maybe another set of guys running the show will work out?
Or maybe not…Chudzinski was fired after only one season.
Obviously a coordinator who had never been a head coach had to be the answer, so Mike Pettine was brought in as the seventh coach of the Browns since they returned to the league in 1999. Since they had a new coach Ray Farmer was brought in as yet another GM and Joe Banner resigned as CEO.
Under the new regime the Browns’ draft woes continued. In 2014 the Browns drafted CB Justin Gilbert with their first round pick, and then traded back up in the first round to draft controversial quarterback Johnny (Football) Manziel.
Johnny Football doing his signature "money sign"
Jimmy Haslam famously told the story after the draft about how he was walking down the street in Cleveland and a homeless man told him to draft Manziel. Its no wonder the franchise is a perpetual loser and the laughing stock of professional football.
Gilbert is already gone and Manziel is out of football. Missing so badly on first round picks over and over is unacceptable.
Round and round we go
After the 2015 season the Browns cleaned house again. Head coach Hue Jackson was brought in which was viewed as being a good move, but the front office is another story. Many Browns fans were very confused at what Jimmy Haslam did to replace Ray Farmer. Sashi Brown was brought in as the Executive Vice President of Football Operations, and essentially General Manager. Brown had served as the team’s executive vice president/general counsel since Cleveland hired him in 2013, but many were surprised by his promotion. He is a lawyer.
Haslam continued with his kind of “off the beaten path” choice of super smart, genius Harvard type when he brought in Paul DePodesta, of Money Ball fame, as Chief Strategy Officer. DePodesta had made his name in Major League Baseball so why in the hell is Haslam bringing him in to help run the Cleveland Browns…a football team?!
The Browns new brain trust
Where will this unconventional group lead the Browns? Its hard to say. In their first season Cleveland finished 1-15, their worst finish since 1999. In their defense, the front office and coaching staff wasn’t left with much from the prior regime to start with. 2017 should be a good barometer of where they are headed. Two drafts to add their players, and two off-season’s to add their free agents.
Where to go from here
I admit that I am a life long Browns fan so I am biased, but I do have some confidence in this group. Not a ton, but some…
The most important thing to me is that they have addressed changing the culture of the team many times. The importance of this cannot be emphasized enough. The losing culture that has infested this franchise from top to bottom, and year after year, through front office changes, new coaching staff’s, and the new updated uniforms the team introduced before the 2016 season wont go away easily.
You can’t just talk about changing the culture…it has to change on its own. The young, tough, character guys the team has brought in is a good start. Now stability, not just with the head coach, but the front office is the next step.
After all of this, the point is that Randy Lerner, not Art Modell is the cause of the losing culture of the Cleveland Browns. The good news is that it has to change some time right? Last year Cleveland sports fans had the Cavs winning the NBA title, and the Indians making it all the way to game seven of the World Series.
Hang in there Browns fans…it will be our time soon enough.