Sunday, January 31, 2016

Why Worry?!

The Cleveland Browns have their fan worried, again.  Maybe the right word isn’t “again” but “still.”  And for once it’s not about the head coach or even the quarterback they still don’t have.  It’s about analytics.

Despite about every possible reason why they couldn’t do it, the Browns did go ahead and hire a credible head coach in Hue Jackson.  But the rejiggering of the front office in a way that doesn’t otherwise exist in the NFL is an understandable cause for concern.  Of the three people most responsible for setting next year’s roster, two of them have absolutely no experience at any level, CYO, middle school, high school, college, semi-pro, pro, flag, evaluating talent.  The other is 28 years old.  In a fit of inspiration, an algorithm will be the chief evaluator.  It can’t be worse.

I’m a proponent of analytics.  You should be, too.  It’s transformed baseball in a way that in large measure has dulled the impact of simply having the fattest wallet.  And while analytics will certainly improve decision making, the human element can’t be eliminated entirely, particularly in making player evaluations.

At the professional level, many talent decisions make themselves.  Anybody, including the person who sees one NBA game every decade can draft LeBron James first.  Where the far more difficult decisions came is in filling out roster behind him. The talent difference between players is often razor thin with the stats giving no clear winner.

The other thing, of course, is that analytic-driven decisions often seem to defy logic or at least conventional wisdom, which also makes people worry.  Look at what just happened with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The firing of head coach David Blatt was driven in large part by analytics.  What worried Griffin was the statistic he quoted, that since 2000-01 season there have been 50 teams that have finished with a winning percentage of at least .700 but only 8 of those teams have won championships.  He feared the Cavs were once again on the same path, based on what he was seeing in the team’s advanced stats and what he was observing in the locker room.  As Griffin said, it seemed to be the least engaged winning team he’d ever been around.

That may very well be true and that’s the human element to all this.  As good as the Cavs are and have been, the losses to both San Antonio and particularly to the Golden State Warriors, while just two of the 82 regular season games the team will play, told you two things.  The first was that the Cavs still aren’t completely meshing.  The second, quite related and even more telling was that the Spurs and the Warriors have an “it” factor the Cavs do not.  There is something inherent in all great teams that just doesn’t lie.  Even when the sum of all parts is great, the great teams are still more than the sum of all those parts.  You saw it with the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes and you see it now with the Warriors.  Call it chemistry or black magic.  What matters most in team sports is still the team concept and to Griffin’s eyes and stat sheet at least, the Cavs didn’t have it and weren’t getting it under Blatt.

The Cavs are all-in on analytics.  Now, too, are the Browns.  The difference of course is that the Cavs have the greatest player on the planet.  The Browns don’t have someone in the top 100 of the best players in the planet, maybe the top 200.  They need more than a good algorithm.  To paraphrase Roy Scheider’s Martin Brody, they’re gonna need a bigger computer.

And if analytics in the hands of really smart people with no football experience wasn’t enough to spook Browns fans, then owner Jimmy Haslam’s most recent comments about estranged quarterback Johnny Manziel should make them petrified because it defies all logic and analytics.

Manziel has mostly been AWOL from the Browns since before the last game of the season.  His bizarre trip to Las Vegas as his earnest but overmatched teammates played out the string, his brief visit to the facility afterward and then his party tour in Texas has been well documented.  So, too, has the fact that Manziel hasn’t reached out to his new head coach nor has the new head coach reached out to Manziel.

Yet at this week’s Senior Bowl Haslam talked as though the relationship with Manziel has simply hit a rough patch in the same way a marriage hits a rough patch, as if divorce is possible but reconciliation more likely.   Well, that rough patch just got rougher.  Manziel is again under investigation for domestic violence and irrespective of what the official police report ultimately concludes I suspect the NFL is going to take this one more seriously than the last time he got into a public argument with a girlfriend.

Mostly I attribute the talk to Haslam’s ill-conceived attempt to build value in a player where there is none as a prelude to some sort of trade.  But on the off chance that Haslam is serious that kind of thinking would qualify him as the biggest lunkhead to occupy an owner’s box since Ted Stepien.  Manziel is a person with a smattering of NFL skills who lacks both the maturity and the temperament to ever be anything more than a guy who used to be somebody in college.  And that’s giving him the benefit of the doubt.  More likely he’s an addict deep within the grips of drugs and booze for whom his first stint in rehab had no lasting impact. You don’t continue to have the kind of incidents that surround Manziel without drugs and/or alcohol being at the center
.
It doesn’t matter, at least to most fans.  The Browns aren’t running a social services agency.  The team has invested significant money and resources in Manziel and all it’s received in return is the attendant league-wide embarrassment that comes with having made such an awful choice in drafting him in the first place.  There is no set of circumstances, not one, where Manziel returning to the Browns for another disastrous season makes a lick of sense to anyone.  Stated differently, if Haslam is serious and ends up hanging on to Manziel it will be at the expense of undoing whatever good will Haslam’s cultivated this offseason.

That’s what has me most worried about the Browns’ new structure.  It’s not that there’s anything theoretically wrong with it.  It’s that the person making the key judgments in putting it together, Haslam, is the same guy who has botched every other decision he’s made up to this point regarding the fans.


Cleveland fans will always worry.  It’s a comfortable space.  They’ve known no real prosperity and when fleeting victories come they are just often preludes to bigger letdowns.  This franchise is finally trying something different for which there is no downside.  Having escaped the vicious cycle of their previous insanity, however, doesn’t put them on the right road.  It just puts them on a different road.  Where it leads is anyone’s guess but at least they’ll have a bunch of algorithms to explain why they got lost this time.

Monday, January 04, 2016

The Stopped Clock


Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is the ultimate stopped clock.  He’s right twice a day or at least for one day, which happened to be this past Sunday.
Haslam was right about firing head coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer.  He also was right about organizational structure.  It doesn’t matter if you have the right people all moving in the same direction.  Whether he’s right about much else remains, as usual, the dark cloud hanging over his franchise.

But like a broken clock, Haslam has gotten little else right in his two plus seasons as an owner.  He’s trusted the wrong people, made the wrong assessments.  He expresses supreme confidence in everyone he hires and abandons them quickly when people question his own competence.  He stands in the fire with his charges but only until it starts to get a little hot.  In short and of his own making, Haslam’s franchise is a mess, the biggest mess really in North American professional sports. 

But let’s suspend for the moment the need to pile on all his shortcomings and take a slightly longer view.  In that sense, there is a slight glimmer anyway that perhaps Haslam may ultimately be building a redemption story.  I said slight glimmer.  Don’t turn the pitchforks at me.

Focusing on the things he got right on Sunday night Pettine and Farmer were disasters of the first order.  Pettine was an odd hiring in the first place.  No one in the league thought he was ready to be a head coach, which is why he was not on anyone’s radar screen when Haslam suddenly promoted him from Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator to Cleveland Browns head coach.  Pettine wasn’t even a compromise hire.  He was a last resort hire.  All he did then over the course of two seasons is look stoic and act inexperienced. Haslam got in kind exactly what he hired.

Pettine’s teams may not have ever completely quit on him but neither did they go out of their way to make him look good, either.  Their record isn’t just a reflection on the dearth of talent.  It’s also a reflection on the lack of basic fundamentals and discipline a professional team needs to be competitive.  The Browns couldn’t steal few wins because they were often undone by the kinds of mistakes that plague players and teams without a sense of purpose.  Pettine never instilled any sense of purpose.  I’m not sure he had one himself.

Farmer was just an egocentric jerk with neither the pedigree nor the resume to justify his outsized sense of entitlement.  It wasn’t just that every decision he made turned out poorly.  It was far more that his process for making decisions was so flawed that the results were inevitable.  His arrogance masked a laziness that ultimately will have a far more damaging impact on the franchise then Pettine’s two years could ever have.  Farmer made poor draft decisions because he wouldn’t put the hard work into really determining the kind of players he was drafting.  It would be easy to go chapter and verse on Farmer but suffice it to say that the fact that the Browns’ secondary had virtually no starters and backups available on Sunday and yet Justin Gilbert could not get on the field.  Yes, Gilbert is that bad and the person that picked him is worse.

So again, cutting loose the two people that lost 18 of their last 21 games, the two people that couldn’t mount a running a game or a defense, seems like any easy decision.  Indeed it’s the kind of decisions that makes itself but give Haslam credit at least for not missing the layup.

What concerns fans right now is what else Haslam had to say at the press conference.  Haslam restructured his front office once again, putting the football operations under Sashi Brown but having the new head coach, whoever that may be, report directly to the owner.

It’s a bit of an odd structure, to be sure, but Haslam’s not wrong when he said that structure matters less than people.  Org structures are the kinds of things insecure people cling to in times of stress.  It’s a way to assert authority when respect hasn’t been otherwise rightfully earned.  The Browns’ prior structure is exactly what Farmer asserted as a way of pushing his own agenda instead of finding a way to work more closely with Pettine.

In some ways, the structure Haslam has now established is similar to what many baseball teams are going toward.  In Toronto, for example, Mark Shapiro was hired to run the baseball operations where he’ll have final say over the roster.  It was the reason that Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos left the team after Shapiro was hired.  As general manager pre-Shapiro, Anthepoulos wasn’t just acquiring talent, he had final say over the roster.  Post-Shapiro, Anthepolous had to yield final say on the roster.  In other words, he kept his title but otherwise have suffered a demotion.  He quit instead.

For the Browns, Sashi Brown will serve in the Shapiro role, at least when it comes to forming the roster.  The difference is that the head coach will not report to Brown.  He’ll report directly to Haslam, which is what Bill Belichick has in New England.  Haslam wants to model successful organizations, certainly, but having the new head coach report to him is a concession, really, to what would have otherwise been an entirely intolerable situation for any head coaching candidate of any substance, reporting to someone with literally no experience running the football operations of any team at any level.  With the head coach reporting to Haslam, that coach will have a bigger say in the organization, maybe a bigger say than most rookie coaches deserve, and a direct pipeline to the owner should he need to mediate the inevitable disputes that will arise.

That’s why hiring a head coach first is of no real consequence this time around.  He won’t report to the general manager anyway so it is not the same situation as when Randy Lerner let Eric Mangini hire his own boss.  If the general manager is in charge of talent acquisition and not the entire football operations, it actually makes a modicum of sense to have the head coach assist in his hiring.  It has to be a good fit, philosophically and culturally.

In short, others may have a problem with this structure, I don’t.  Where I do have a problem is trusting its execution to Haslam.  Brown may very well be an undiscovered talent, but why is it that the Browns are the ones that have to always do the experimenting?  Maybe that’s the outcome of a bankrupt franchise, but it needn’t be. No matter how bad things are in Cleveland, there's still only 32 NFL jobs and far more applicants than openings. This is a franchise deeply in trouble and it’s probably the exact wrong time to be taking a flyer on someone without a track record of any kind.  And what is it about Haslam that gives anyone any confidence that his assessment of Brown is correct?  Haslam hasn’t made an assessment on the football side of his business that was even in the same zip code as correct.  But Haslam did, once again, express his supreme confidence in Brown, just like he did in Farmer.  So there is that.

You also have to be just as nervous that Haslam has put himself front and center of the search committee for the new head coach.  The structure he created leaves him no other choice.  At some point you'd like to think Haslam has enough self awareness to question his own ability to get this decision right.  But self awareness is in short supply in Berea.  It's how things end up this way. Too bad the Browns aren’t a publicly traded stock.  The smart money would be shorting it all day long.

The Browns imploding and rebooting every two years used to be as predictable as the swallows returning to Capistrano every February.  But then a funny thing happened.  Some of the locals there, in their quest to improve the experience, created an inhospitable environment for the swallows and they stopped returning.  Now they're scrambling to get them back in much the same way as Haslam will have to scramble to reclaim the fans he's lost every time he's tried to improve the experience.  He's on the verge of improving it out of existence.


Every NFL owner has a built in constituency willing to suffer any level of abuse but it would be folly for Haslam to conclude that his actions and those of his predecessors haven’t done significant and in some cases irreversible damage.  Since the Browns left, an entire generation of fans have been lost, not having known anything close to resembling a competent, let alone a winning franchise.  The previous generations have been completely alienated.  Haslam can talk about working hard to get things right but all the fans keep getting are the toxic fumes of another tire fire being set by a franchise with a seemingly unending supply  of waste materials and no shortage of fuel or matches.  What doesn’t kill you may make you stronger but it doesn’t make you more engaged.  Haslam’s short tenure has continued the most disturbing trend of all.  In droves, what fans that remain have replaced their passion with their indifference, whether its about the results on the field or the latest travails of Johnny Disaster.  And that’s the worst indictment of all.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Bottomless Pit


I’ve been writing about the Cleveland Browns on this little blog and elsewhere for 9 years, 9 miserable friggin’ years.  To understand the misery, the pride swallowing siege that it’s been, when I started the Browns had already been back from NFL-mandated purgatory for 7 years.  In those first 7 seasons of Browns 2.0, the team had one winning record and one playoff appearance.  Both came under the weird tenure of Butch Davis.  In retrospect, those were the good time.
During those first 7 years, there were only two head coaches for the Browns and two owner.  In context, that’s not too shabby, the key word being context.
Since then, the Browns have been in a free fall without end.  Alcoholics and drug addicts hit rock bottom.  The Browns never do.  There is no bottom, rock or otherwise.  When you think the franchise can’t get worse, it does, spectacularly so in fact.  The Browns haven’t been content being the worst franchise in pro football.  They’ve taken it to the next level, which is the worst franchise in North American sports.  Only a lack of knowledge on the intricacies of the various European soccer leagues and southern hemisphere winter baseball prevents me from saying it’s the worst franchise in the entire world.  I do suspect that’s true, however and if it’s not they are in the top 3.
In the last 9 years the Browns have had 6 head coaches, 10 offensive coordinators, 11 different quarterbacks (but far more that have actually started a game) and a third owner. The team has had a losing record, a deeply losing record, in all but one year.  In a 16 game season, the Browns typically win about 25% of their games, which translates to about 4 or 5 a year.  They won 10 games once.  As befits everything else about this team, naturally a 10-win season it wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs even though in almost any other season it would probably get them a bye.  When it comes to the Browns, nothing is ever good enough or even close to good enough or even in the same stratosphere of good enough.
My point here is to not recount a history you already understand.  It’s to let you know that I know what you know and to let you know that when I say that despite how bad the last 9 years have been, this season is truly the worst in every measurable and emotional way, it’s not hyperbole, just fact.
I can’t tell if Jimmy Haslam is the worst owner ever, the dumbest owner ever or just the most na├»ve owner ever.  But he is something and at this point the label doesn’t matter.  He’s overseeing such a spectacularly inept enterprise that he bares just as much responsibility for the mess as the two fools who came before him, Al and Randy Lerner, separately or together, it doesn’t matter.
We live in an era of instant gratification, maybe we always have.  As fans we see incompetence and we demand that heads roll because we want the satisfaction of knowing that somebody who has so violated our trust, our patience and our loyalty hasn’t just been taken out to the woodshed and spanked, hard.  We want to know that those responsible are forever extricated from our lives, never to be seen or heard from again, except on the sidelines of our worst enemies, like Michigan.  It’s the only way we get closure, the only way we get a measure of accomplishment from a leisure pursuit that has been tortuous to us.
In that vein, it’s rather remarkable that Haslam continues to hold on to anyone in his front office, even with but a few weeks remaining.  Head coach Mike Pettine is earnest in approach but overwhelmed by the task in front of him. Every week in every way imaginable he puts it all on display.  The team never seems to have any sort of game plan on either offense or defense.  Pettine never offers an adjustment to the circumstances in front of him.  His teams are undisciplined and lack focus.  He can’t even manage the clock or figure out when to call a time out.  He’s not instilled any sense of culture or ownership within the players he controls.  They play a lifeless brand of scattered football, emotionless and generic.  In every way possible or imaginable, the team reflects the stoic incompetence of the man in charge each Sunday.
Now some argue that Pettine can only do so much with what Ray Farmer, the general manager gives him.  True enough.  It’s hard to have a game plan on either side of the ball when you know before the first scheme crosses your mind you don’t have the players that could execute it with any sort of precision, let alone competence, let alone consistency  Pettine is hamstrung in ways that are hard to fathom, no doubt.
Yet the truly gifted coaches still find a way to make occasional chicken salad out of the chicken shit they’ve been handed and maybe that’s the best you can say about last Sunday’s victory over a team and franchise in just as bad shape, the San Francisco 49ers.  But ask yourself this:  can you name one instance where Pettine demonstrated in any measurable way an ability to overcome his circumstances?  You can’t because there isn’t one.  Here’s another way to think about it.  If the Browns were to play New England this weekend and the NFL required that Pettine and Bill Belichick switch jobs that week, by the game on Sunday the Belichick-coached Browns would be favored over the Pettine-coached Patriots, mainly because Pettine would find a way to take the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands.
Pettine doesn’t need to be Belichick to be successful.  But he needs to be better than he is.  Two years, in this context, is enough time to conclude that for whatever value stability has its pursuit in this case would just be another fool’s errand.  If Pettine remains it just delays the ability to try once again to stem the depth of its constant fall.
Now the other side of that coin is that Pettine is the devil you know.  His abilities clearly match those of the talentless boobs that surround him.  And if he leaves, do you really trust Haslam with the next selection?  That is the crux of the matter, isn’t it?  Whatever else you think of Haslam he’s more than proven to be an incredibly inept decision maker.
As for Farmer, he’s actually more incompetent than Pettine and the comparison isn’t hardly even fair.  If Pettine is measured only in the context of the idiots that surround him in Berea then of course he should keep his job.  But that is hardly the measure stick.  Simply because Farmer is the worst general manager in the history of general managers isn’t the way to judge Pettine.  It’s the way to judge Farmer.  Fire Farmer now.  The team showed that it could live without him for 4 games.  Hell, one of their three wins came when Farmer was on suspension and another win came the week he returned, meaning he didn’t have time to muck up anything.  Since he’s really been back the team has won only once. It’s not a coincidence.
I’ve already detailed chapter and verse in the past as to what makes Farmer so bad at his job.  He’s blown every first round pick he’s been given.  He’s signed no meaningful free agents but did squander valuable cash and cap space on Dwayne Bowe, the worst free agent acquisition since Andre Rison.  Actually that’s unfair to Rison.  In his one year in Cleveland Rison played in all 16 games and had 47 receptions. His production didn’t match what the team paid and they acquired him when they had no money to pay him.  But he did produce, relatively speaking. Bowe is so bad on a team with but one legitimate receiver and still can’t crack the game day roster, let alone the starting roster.  There’s been almost zero production.  If you really think about it, Bowe is the poster child for the entire franchise.  Lots of money invested, nothing to show for it.
But the book on Farmer is so much more.  He’s arrogant to a fault.  The willful disregard for the rules on texting is one thing.  More damning though is his almost obstinate refusal to attend pro days last year for many of the top prospects. Farmer treated it as an activity beneath his pay grade, I guess.  As a result Farmer lost the opportunity, on purpose, to offer to his employer the main skill he’s being paid to exercise—his informed and considered opinion.
Almost everyone else in the world outside of Farmer and Jerry Jones, apparently, saw the hot mess that was Johnny Manziel.  The guy just didn’t send up red flags from time to time.  He waved around fistfuls at almost every hour of every day.  And yet Farmer ignored every warning sign anyway.  The same is true for Justin Gilbert.  How Farmer could not have known that Gilbert lacked even the most basic of work ethics is beyond me, but then again he missed the same thing on Bowe so there is that.  Cameron Erving and Danny Shelton, this year’s Manziel and Gilbert, are very average talents at best.  Erving has been benched on a team that’s won only three games, one in which he didn’t even play.  Indeed against Seattle, Erving saw the field only out of necessity.  The Browns could have played with one less linemen and left Erving on the bench and the result would have been no different.  As for Shelton, he’s run over so often by opposing centers and guards you’d think he was auditioning for the Wile E. Coyote role in the live action version of The Road Runner cartoon series.
In other words, it’s not just that Farmer is bad at drafting.  He’s lazy and arrogant and a significant contributor to the awful culture deeply imbedded within the walls of Berea.  He’s neither a winner nor understands what it even means to be a winner or to build a winning culture.  There’s nothing about Farmer’s performance, not one hint that suggest he could possibly be part of the long term answer in turning the franchise around.  Cutting that cord now would be the best possible message to the franchise.  Keeping him one minute longer only exacerbates Haslam’s tenuous control over the franchise.
The ultimate problem with this franchise, and this falls back to where this all started, is the owner.  No one publicly understands what Haslam stands for and I’ve heard no one inside Berea who could articulate Haslam’s specific vision either, outside of amorphous concepts of building a winner and valuing stability.  Well, Haslam’s done neither in his short tenure and yet there’s no reason to suggest that valuing stability at this juncture will lead to building a winner. 
None of that means that Haslam needs to sell the team.  Maybe he can rebuild the trust he never fully got anyway.  To do that though he needs to get the hell out of the way.  He needs to find a respected franchise guru, someone who knows how to build a structure and a culture.  That isn’t going to come easy.
The intriguing aspect of the ridiculous rumor about Urban Meyer coming to the Browns was the type of package that was supposedly on the table.  It included not just a huge salary but a piece of the ownership pie.  Meyer isn’t coming to Cleveland under any circumstances.  But the kind of package he would garner is exactly what it would take to get someone as credible as Meyer to come to town.
Randy Lerner thought he had that in Mike Holmgren.  The thought made sense except Holmgren was simply the wrong guy.  His football knowledge was top notch but his commitment to the team was middling, at best.  He never fully relocated to Cleveland, spending most of his time either in Seattle or Arizona, neither of which were conducive to building a team in Cleveland.  Holmgren also lacked the brutal honestly of an architect like Belichick, which is why Holmgren kept Eric Mangini a year longer than he deserved and then filled the breach with the son of a friend in Pat Shurmur.
I don’t know who is out there to take on this kind of reclamation project and I’m not sure Haslam has the wherewithal to come up with the right package to get him anyway.  I guess what I’m saying is that it easily could be at least another 9 years of abject frustration and if I’m still writing about them then, have me committed.  Better yet, just drop me a card at whatever institution I’m a resident as I would have likely voluntarily committed myself well before then.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Meanwhile, Somewhere In Berea...


It’s Sunday of the Cleveland Browns merciful bye week.  The team, the players, the coaches, the owner and the fans welcome the break like Nordstom’s welcomes a bored housewife with a clutch full of credit cards.  But there’s still activity inside Berea. There’s always activity in side Berea. Let’s take a look:

Int. Head coach Mike Pettine’s office.  A desk, almost completely uncluttered except for an opened iPad, is centered in the room.  There are no pictures of his kids or wife.  The only picture in the entire office sits on an unused credenza.  It’s an autographed picture from Denis O’Leary who played the head coach of the Browns in the movie “Draft Day.”  It’s enscribed:  “Here’s hoping Brian Hoyer is your Brian Drew.”  The desk chair is pushed in as if it hadn’t been sat in for days, maybe weeks, maybe ever.   The walls have no permanent reminders or mementos of its current resident.  There are however boxes filled with various personal items from other stops Pettine has made along the way.  One box has a Buffalo Bills wool ski cap hanging half way out.  As the camera pans out, we see Pettine standing stoically looking out the lone window of his office onto the empty practice fields in the distance.  He is wearing sunglasses and a mid-weight jacket with the word “Browns” over the left breast.  His hands are in the jackets pockets.  He’s also wearing a headset though it doesn’t appear to be connected to anything.  The plug end trails behind him.  Pettine doesn’t move for what seems to be several minutes.

Ray Farmer, general manager, enters.  He’s wearing a tight, overly tight actually, Browns sweatshirt as if the point is to accentuate the biceps he cultivated during a mostly pedestrian career as an itinerant professional football player.  He’s sweating profusely and carrying a water bottle.  He’s wearing slacks, belying the impression that he just came back from a workout.  He’s a man in a hurry but painfully unsure of where he’s supposed to be next.

Farmer:  Hey, Pett, what’s up?  Got a minute?

Pettine:  The usual Ray.  Just working hard.  Trying to get some of our mistakes cleaned up. Penalties. Execution.  That kind of thing.  Just need to get it all cleaned up.  Working hard to get a W.  I’m pressed for time.  What do you need?

Farmer:  Not for nothing, Pett, but honestly it just looks like you’re staring out the window.  It doesn’t look like you’ve touched anything on your desk in weeks.  Do you even know how to turn on that iPad?  It has the playbook and game films right on it.  You just touch the Browns app and it’s all there.

Pettine:  I’m the head coach, Ray.  My job isn’t to be an electronics wiz.  It’s to be stoic and that’s what I am, stoic.  No panic.  Just keep working hard, getting things cleaned up.

Farmer:  Ok. Right.  Whatever.  Anyway, that’s not why I stopped by.  I want to run an idea by you.

Pettine:  Just a second. (Pettine continues staring out the window for several minutes.  He doesn’t appear to move a muscle.  Farmer, continuing to sweat as if he were wearing a parka on a 100 degree day, takes swig after swig from his water bottle as he watches Pettine.)

Pettine:  Did you say something, Ray?

Farmer:  Uh, yea.  I want to run an idea by you.  I’m thinking of making a few trades, thought I’d run them by you, not for sign-off of course.  I’m the decider here.  I have control over the roster.  But getting your opinion on something makes it look like we work together all the time.  You know, just like the Justin Gilbert pick.

Pettine:  Hasn’t the trade deadline passed? 

Farmer:  There’s a deadline? Damn.  Is that written anywhere?  You got some kind of memo on that?

(Pettine continues staring out the window.  Farmer continues drinking water, occasionally wiping his bald head with a handkerchief he pulls from his back pocket.  As Farmer ponders his response owner Jimmy Haslam walks in.  He’s wearing an expensive brown suit, white shirt with orange and brown tie.  He’s drinking coffee from a Pilot Flying J mug.)

Haslam:  Guys, glad you’re both in here.  I wanted to talk with you both.

Farmer:  What’s up, boss?  I can still call you boss, right?

Haslam:  Ray, I said no changes during the bye week.  No changes means no changes.  (Farmer looks visibly relieved though sweat continues to pour down him as if he were standing in a Miami rainshower in mid July.  Pettine remains stoic as he continues to stare, apparently aimlessly, out the window onto the practice fields.)  Look, I think we need to talk.  The media is all over us.  The fans are all over us.  We haven’t won a game in months.  In every conceivable way we’re regressing just from last year and let’s face it, last year wasn’t exactly my definition of success.

Farmer:  That’s an interesting point, boss.  How do you define success?  See, the reason I ask is that everyone has different definitions of success.  For me, growing up as I did, poor neighborhood, drug dealers on the corner, that kind of thing, I probably define success differently than you, coming from the nice background you came from and all.  I’m a pretty big deal in my neighborhood.  I have a nice house, nice car.  In my neighborhood, the guys I grew up with, they’d say I’m successful. But I’m open to the idea that I may be defining it differently than you, see, that’s my point.  How are we defining success here?

Haslam:  Well, let’s see, Ray.  This is professional football.  We exist in a league made up of other teams just like us.  We play 16 games against other teams in this league.  You either win those games or you lose them.  And then you tally up the wins and the losses and you compare that to those other teams.  The teams with more wins go the playoffs where they play each other to eventually figure out the championship.  Those teams are what we define as successful, Ray.  We need to be one of those teams with more wins than losses.  One of those teams that goes to the playoffs and maybe the championship.

Farmer:  I see where you’re going with that, boss.  That makes sense to me.  Glad we’re on the same page now.  So if that’s it then I’ve got to be heading back to my office. It’s bye week.  It gives me a chance to tweak my fantasy football rosters.  I’m in 4 leagues and frankly I’m not doing very well in any of them at the moment.

Haslam:  Not so fast, Ray.  The three of us need to talk, collectively, about how we fix this, what we’re going to do differently in order to be successful in this league.

Farmer:  That’s fine by me, boss. I got some time before lunch.   Whatever you want to do.  But remember, you’re the one that no changes, so now I’m a little confused because it sounds like you’re looking for changes.

Haslam:  When I said “no changes” I meant I wasn’t going to fire you or Pett.  Not now anyway.  That’s what I meant by no changes.  (Farmer again looks visibly relieved as he wipes even more sweat from his balding head.  Pettine continues to look off into the distance, unfazed by anything he’s just heard.  It’s not even clear he’s heard anything at all.)  (Seeing the relived Farmer) I said right now.  But unless we figure out how to get better players here, through the draft, through free agency, and unless we figure out how to better coach those players, I won’t be able to resist.  I’ll make changes faster than I change the bonus programs at Pilot Flying J.  We’re failing as a franchise. Right now the only guy on the team anyone cares about is the left tackle and you wanted to trade him.

Farmer:  Well, I understand your thinking on that, boss, about Joe Thomas I mean.  But hear me out. I was reading on some stats web site how left tackles aren’t as valuable as they once were so I figured maybe some of the other GMs in the league hadn’t read that web site yet and maybe were still thinking, you know old fashioned like, that you need a good left tackle to protect your quarterback in what’s become a predominately pass league and I could trick them into giving us a couple or three number 1 picks for Thomas.  According to our media guide Joe Thomas makes the Pro Bowl, like a lot.  So if I could get 3 number 1 picks for him, that would really set us up for the future.

Haslam:  (Exasperated and shaking his head).  This is going to be harder than I thought.  Ray, we’ve blown the last 4 number one picks.  What’s your plan for drafting better players?  I mean just look at this damn roster. Danny Shelton, Cameron Erving, Justin Gilbert, Johnny Manziel.  You want to go back further?  How about Barkevious Mingo?  How about Trent Richardson?  That’s six straight picks and every one has been a dud, one way or the other.

Farmer:  You can’t pin Richardson on me.

Haslam:  Ray, I’m just talking about trends here.  We have no foundation on this team and we aren’t going to get one if we can’t even get players in the first round who get on the field. Gilbert hasn’t played meaningful snaps since he was a senior at Alabama.  Manziel is a party boy who already is back drinking again.  Shelton and Erving at least start, but it’s not like those units are better for it.  In fact, they’re worse.

Farmer: I’m not sure I’m getting your point here, boss.  You know the culture I’m trying to get instilled here, the one where only the best players play each week?  If those guys you mentioned can’t get on the field or their duty is limited then they aren’t the best players.  The guys beating them out are better.  See how that works?  It’s logic.  It’s the way it should be and I’m proud of instilling that culture.

(Pettine doesn’t flinch)

Haslam:  But aren’t those four or five players, drafted number one as they were, supposed to beat out the other players on the team?  Isn’t that why we draft them number one? Aren’t they supposed to be no-brainer selections, guys who will be starting for years?

Farmer:  I mean, if you want to look at it like that, I guess you could.  But it doesn’t always work out that way. I just think the best players should play each week, doesn’t matter if they were number one picks or undrafted guys we signed.  Everyone develops at a different rate.  Sometimes an undrafted free agent adapts more quickly than a number one pick.  That kind of thing’s just going to happen. 

Haslam:  It doesn’t happen that way in New England.  It doesn’t happen that way in Pittsburgh.  The only place that seems to happen every year is Cleveland.  Ray, you do understand your job, right?

Farmer: Of course, boss.  And thanks for sticking with me like this.  I don’t know what kind of culture they got going on in New England or Pittsburgh.  They do seem to win, though, so maybe their best guys are winning the battles during the week.  Just like we’re trying to do.  I’ll keep drafting guys and Pett will play the guys he thinks are best.  It’s a long process.  Progress, slow and steady. We’re on our way.  I really believe that.

Haslam: Ray, are you insane?  You do know that we’re regressing, don’t you?  And we weren’t very good to begin with.  I want to hear your specific plan on how you’re going to start utilizing the number one draft picks we keep earning to actually find players that can get on the field.

Farmer:  I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. The best players are getting on the field.  That’s the culture I’ve instilled with Pett.

Haslam:  The hell with the culture.  We need better players, lots more of them. Jesus Christ, Ray, you signed Dwayne Bowe to a multi-million dollar contract and he can’t get on the field. Do we really want to walk down that road we want to get this fixed?

Farmer:  I think it’s on the coaches to coach up Justin and Dwayne.  That’s on them, not that I’m trying to blame anyone. I think Pett’s doing a helluva job with the players he’s got.  But like I was saying, it’s not on me that Gilbert can’t get on the field.  He’s obviously not one of the best guys.  That’s the way these things go.

(Pettine pulls back the right ear phone as he begins to listen.  Still stoic, he offers up some quick observations)

Pettine:  Justin needs to trust his technique better.  He had some sloppy habits he developed in college and we’re trying to break him of them.  He’s been good in the meeting room, though.  He’s trying.  We just got to get him consistent. (Pettine then puts the right ear phone back into place and resumes staring out the window, as stoic as ever.)

Haslam:  Something’s missing.  We aren’t doing a good job of evaluating players and we aren’t doing a good job of coaching up the guys we have.  (Pettine raises his left eyebrow as his right one lowers, as if he’s skeptical of what he just heard.  Nonetheless he continues to look out the window, stoically.)  We need to look at all that and we will and by “we” I mean my wife and me and maybe Alec, not sure yet on that.  But right now I’m trying to figure out how we’re making decisions around here.  Every other team, even the Oakland Raiders for Christ’s sake, seem to be getting better.  Maybe we should have drafted David Carr.  We need to look at the process because I’m not even sure we have one at this point and if we do it’s more broken than my reputation with the trucking community.  We’re defying the odds. (Haslam takes a swig from his coffee cup and purses his lips suggesting that there’s something other than coffee inside)

Farmer:   That can be a good thing, defying the odds.  It shows that we’re outside the box.  Now it’s just a matter of getting outside the box on the right thing.  That’s another piece of the culture I’m trying to instill, you know what I mean?

Haslam:  What about you, Pett?  Pett?  Pett? (Pettine continues looking out the window.  Haslam taps him on the shoulder to get his attention). Pett?

Pettine:  What’s up, Jimmy?

Haslam:  Haven’t you been listening at all?  I’m here to talk about how we get better week.  Are you even listening?

Pettine:  I think we all know that Rome wasn’t built in a day, that nothing good comes easy, and it’s a marathon, you know, not a sprint.

Haslam:  How come we can’t get Gilbert on the field?  Why did we start an injured Josh McCown instead of evaluating Manziel when it was clear the season was already lost?  How come Shelton never seems to make a tackle?  Why does all the pressure seem to come through Erving’s gap?  And why do we have almost as many penalty yards this season as rushing yards?

Pettine: (still looking out the window, intently): We’re just trying to win games here, playing the guys we think give us the best chance to win each week.   As I said, Justin needs to just trust his technique.  Johnny’s working hard.  He’s good in the quarterback room.  Much more alert than last season.  Shelt’s coming along but the transition from college is tough, like Justin’s.  Erving is working hard, we work with him every day.

Haslam:  Not my question.  How are we going to get better as a team, as a franchise?  How are we going to be successful and so that I’m clear on this point, a team that actually wins more than it loses, let’s start there.

Pettine:  We’re just going to keep working at it, cleaning things up.  Those penalties are frustrating and we just got to get that cleaned up.

Haslam:  So are you saying we have the right players here?

Pettine:  Jimmy, that’s not my job to say.  Ray’s got final say over the 40 man roster.  I was just happy to get this job.  It’s not my place to push boundaries here.  I’m just happy to have the job.

Haslam:  (Clearly talking to himself at this point) This isn’t getting me anywhere.  Maybe I just need to get this management group restructured again, maybe rejigger the uniforms again.  I’m thinking brown helmets, maybe a logo. I wonder if Alec’s in his office.  (Haslam exits, head bowed.  Tears in his eyes, his face expressing the kind of frustration and realization that comes with having squandered a multi-million dollar investment.)

Farmer:  (to Pettine, who remains staring out the window, earphones over both ears.) Well, that was weird.  Nice guy, that Jimmy, but doesn’t seem to know much about football, that’s for sure.  Don’t you agree, Pett?  (Pettine says nothing, the expression on his face as determined and blank as ever.)
Fade out.  Again.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Culture Matters.


After the Cleveland Browns once again embarrassed themselves and their fans with a performance as pitiful as any in the 2.0 era, I cleansed the palate by heading to the movies to see Steve Jobs.  It’s an excellent movie but what it tells you about the Browns is probably more useful than the latest iOS update.
The point of Jobs was more or less made late in the movie when Jobs and his former partner, Steve Wozniak, were engaged in a heated discussion prior to the launch of the iMac.  With Apple in transition following Jobs’ return and on the verge of laying off hundreds of workers, Wozniak wanted Jobs to acknowledge at the iMac launch the contributions that the team that created Apple’s initial signature computer, the Apple II. Wozniak wanted it as a gift to those being laid off, letting them know, and by proxy the remaining employees, that all contributions are valued.  Jobs refused because, in many ways, Jobs was an abrasive prick who valued virtually no one’s input or contributions but his own.  In disgust Wozniak leaves the auditorium as he tells Jobs that life isn’t binary.  You can be both a decent human being and a genius at the same time.
That pretty much sums up the frustration I think most Browns fans have with this franchise.  It is only binary.  It’s either one thing or the other but never all it ought to be at the same time.  And until it figures out that it needs to be all it can be at the same time, there really is no meaningful path forward, just more meandering.
The other thing that struck me about Jobs was the fact that the company ultimately became wildly successful despite the toxic culture that emanated from the top.  Jobs was an unrelenting asshole most of the time.  He wasn’t demanding but fair.  He was unreasonably demanding and often unfair.  Undoubtedly that culture had to permeate the organization.  Subordinates do follow the leader.
But the strength of Apple’s products and Jobs’ vision overcame all the cultural headwinds he deliberately inflicted on that company although it’s also fair to note that Apple failed miserably and was on the verge of shutting down because of Jobs as well.  It was only after the products, not only the iMac but more importantly, the iPhone were introduced and literally ushered in one of the single biggest technological advances that the products could overtake whatever toxic culture had otherwise existed.
For the Browns, however, there is literally no chance of a similar change on the horizon.  In the first place, there is absolutely no geniuses anywhere in the organization or otherworldly players whose skills and abilities can transcend an otherwise toxic environment.  There are, however, various shades and colors of fools.  That wouldn’t be so bad if those fools were otherwise functional and creating an environment where the organization could otherwise thrive.  They aren’t and that combination is how you end up with what amounted to a legal mugging in St. Louis on Sunday.
Culture usually matters.  Most companies spend countless hours and dollars on building and maintaining a good corporate culture because in life some things simply don’t change.  The only real way to get a behemoth of any sort moving in the right direction, be it a billion dollar corporation or a NFL team is teamwork.  Every oar has to be moving in rhythm with the other and in the same direction.
Executives get training on leadership and culture.  These are learned skills and they and, perhaps outside of the most recent iteration of Apple, among the most critical to an enterprise’s success.
Jimmy Haslam owns the Browns and perhaps the best you can say about him is that he’s still learning to be an owner.  He hasn’t yet corralled all the things he still doesn’t know.  On any given day and perhaps on most days he discovers something new about the hobby he undertook that spins him in still another direction.
But even as he’s trying to figure this all out, there is considerable question as to whether or not he’s setting the right tone at the top.  In his short tenure as the team’s owner, he’s been impetuous and often knee-jerk in his approach.  He’s already had two of everything and he’s likely to be on his third set of managers very soon.  The legal problems related to his main business still aren’t fully behind him and, ultimately, are his responsibility.  Those dog both him and this team.  Haslam may be able to credibly argue that he neither knew or actively participated in the fraud that enveloped Pilot Flying J, but he cannot credibly argue that there was something about his leadership, about the expectations he laid out and the demands he placed on others that didn’t in whole or part foster a culture where others felt that engaging in the fraud they did was an acceptable means of servicing his demands and expectations.
It’s similar to what happened in New Jersey with Chris Christie and the George Washington Bridge.  He may not have directly told any of his minions to close the toll booths in Fort Lee in order to snarl traffic as punishment to that town’s mayor who wouldn’t endorse him, but he most surely created the culture that gave others the idea to do just that.  Anyone who has spent any time in New Jersey knows that Christie is a vindictive blowhard with significant inadequacy issues.  When he doesn't get his way, he bullies the perceived offender by leveraging his position to delay all sorts of government services.   So when Christie wasn’t getting his way from the Mayor of Fort Lee it wasn’t much of a leap for his top advisors to concoct an inelegant and dangerous scheme in retribution.  Christie may have had plausible deniability on the underlying act but the culture he created is as culpable for what happened as anything else.
In the same way, the University of Louisville is confronting issues of culture when it comes to head basketball coach Rick Pitino.  It’s hard to imagine that Pitino would ever directly approve having an assistant coach essentially run a strip joint out of one of the dorms in order to entice top level recruits to matriculate at Louisville.  It’s just as hard to imagine that he would not have immediately shut it down had he direct knowledge of what was taking place.
And yet Pitino’s continued service with the university should still be in question because the most salient question that has to be answered when it comes to him is whether he fostered a culture that directly contributed to what ultimately did take place.  Did Pitino’s intense desire to secure the best recruits and keep them from arch rival Kentucky so that he could win National Championships give his assistants the kind of green light where they thought that unethical and/or illegal conduct was an appropriate way to achieve those goals?  Time will tell.  That investigation continues.
These are lessons, some very hard, on the same point.  Culture matters and the Browns do not have a winning culture.  You could cite chapter and verse about why that is, particularly when you consider the last decade plus of history.  Wrong hires.  Bad draft choices.  Disaffected owners.  The point remains: every new Browns regime talks a good game about creating a winning culture.  None have had anything resembling the ability to get that done.  It still isn’t.
Haslam can fairly be viewed as a guy running a business where key employees have been definitively found to have played fast and loose with not just the rules but the law.  Ray Farmer, his handpicked general manager, is fairly viewed by those who work for him directly (his staff) and indirectly (the players) as having an ego that far exceeds his accomplishments and as being someone who likewise doesn’t’ mind playing fast and loose with the rules, which led to his suspension.  Then of course he’s also someone who is objectively lousy at his job. Head coach Mike Pettine is a well-intentioned but ultimately raw and inexperienced head coach who is fairly viewed as being completing inept at corralling the team’s most outsized personality, Johnny Manziel.
When you combine that level of dysfunction with a team with the worst culture in the NFL before they arrive and then you sprinkle in the marginal talents on the field, results like Sunday’s inevitable beat down are, well, inevitable.
Haslam will reboot again come season’s end.  He’ll have no choice.  But that reboot will be no more successful than his last two because what he never addresses is what he must address first, culture.  It does matter.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

History Is Not On His Side


At this point it seems like a question of when and not if, as in when will Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam clean house once again?
There is simply  no way a knee-jerk owner like Haslam tolerates regression, right?  Well, that’s probably true.  Still the dilemma he faces is a tad challenging to resolve, assuming you’re willing to give Haslam some credit for not being a total reactionary.
The mental gymnastics Haslam must be going through since watching this supposedly better version of the Browns get embarrassed nearly every week havsto be exhausting.  Haslam can’t like what he sees any more than any fans like what they see.  But the strong evidence tells him and you that the key to long term success in the NFL (and most businesses, actually) is stability, particularly at the top.
So does he stay the course out of the need to create stability within the league’s most unstable franchise or does he once again turn over the apple cart in the name of finding something or someone who can turn it back upright and get it going in the right direction?  With great money comes great responsibility.  The only thing worth gambling on is that whatever decision he makes will be wrong because, Cleveland.
The NFL out of necessity and union rules, treats most players as fungible commodities, a balance that takes into account absolute value, value about or below the potential replacement and salary cap impacts when deciding in any given season which players stay and which go.  Indeed teams turn over 25-30% of their rosters each year. 
The team’s that can perform the evaluation tasks well do so with good management that stays in place from year to year.  The New England Patriots are the gold standard.  The teams that perform those tasks poorly often are unstable franchises who hire poor talent evaluators and mediocre coaches.  The Browns are that gold standard.
While Haslam should prize stability but that only matters when you have the right folks in place at the top.  The Browns don’t and never do.  Let’s look at the last 15 years for the clues.
 Randy Lerner seemed to face a housecleaning dilemma every year and history has more than proven that in every case he actually fostered regression by hanging on to coaches and general managers who clearly were not suited for the job.  His biggest fault was that he couldn’t tell the difference between a Cadillac and a Camry.  As long as he had someone driving him around I guess it didn’t matter.
Since the Browns returned in 1999 only one fired head coach of the Browns went on to be a head coach again.  That would be Romeo Crennel who, incidentally, still has the longest tenure as a Browns head coach in the 2.0 ERA.  Crennel was an awful head coach overseeing typically awful Browns personnel.  He won 6 games his first season, 4 his next.  He should have been fired then as it led to what came next.  Perhaps his major accomplishment was to win 10 games in his third season, which made it look like Lerner was a genius even though the Browns are one of the few teams in NFL history to have won 10 games and not make the playoffs.  More to the point though is that while the NFL is a bottom line league, those 10 wins were soft.  Fans and history will recall that the Browns had a historically easy schedule that entire season, a point that was proven the following season when a Browns team supposedly on the come sank back to Crennel’s set point of 4 wins.  He was fired and instead of being two years into a new regime and direction the Browns were set back by those same two years.
And while Crennel did find a head coaching job again, that shouldn’t alter Haslam’s view.  After getting fired by the Browns Crennel ended up in Kansas City as a defensive coordinator, a job for which he was uniquely qualified and successful.  He became head coach when the Chiefs fired Todd Haley.  Crennel continued into the next season as well, his only full year as a head coach the second time around.  He promptly won 4 games with a Kansas City team many also thought was on the come and was fired. (Indeed that Chiefs team was on the come.  Andy Reid stepped in the next year and promptly won 11 games with essentially the same personnel.)
After that you have Butch Davis who never got another head coaching gig in the NFL but did land in college at North Carolina and was fired as part of the stench of an extensive academic cheating scandal that led to the Browns ultimately drafting Greg Little, but that’s another failed story for another day.
Then there are the various general managers all with the same awful track record and not a one of them hired thereafter as a general manager anywhere else.  That list includes Dwight Clark, Butch Davis (served as his own GM), Phil Savage, George Kokinis (although he was a mere puppet for the subordinate that hired him, Eric Mangini, who also hasn’t worked again as a head coach), Tom Heckert, Mike Lombardi and now Ray Farmer.
The point here is that these aren’t just trends to be interpreted.  The Browns have an unblemished record of hiring awful general managers and head coaches and every time they held on to one or the other longer than they should have it set the franchise back even further.  Crennel is an obvious example but no bigger than Mike Holmgren holding on to Eric Mangini despite the fact that he literally couldn’t stand him.
So as Halsam finds himself on the precipice of having to figure out when housecleaning should commence, the history he need rely on is not that of the wonderfully ethereal concept of stability but that of a franchise he owns that has been 100% wrong for 16 straight years.
I’ve already and repeatedly chronicled general manager Ray Farmer’s shortcomings.  His talent evaluation skills and philosophies are so misguided and inept, the results on the field can fairly be said to be inevitable.  Holding on to him is worse than holding on to Phil Savage and on par with holding on to Dwight Clark.   And yet to place all the blame on Farmer is to ignore Pettine’s massive shortcomings as a head coach. Those, too, are becoming more pronounced as the weeks roll by and here the parallels with Crennel are eerie.
In a sense, the first four games of the season, played against teams of similar caliber, provided a nice experiment where you can control certain variables to determine where the problems really exist. The debacle against the Jets, for example, highlighted the difference a coach can make on a bad team.  The Jets were a mess last season, similar to the Browns.  Yet week one the Jets, without any significant upgrades in personnel, came out well prepared and more than ready to play.  The Browns looked like they had just entered the second week of training camp and were essentially pushed around the field.  The game set a tone for both teams.  You wouldn’t be wrong to note that one of the hallmarks of Crennel’s teams each week were their lack of preparation.  There seemed to be little sense of a game plan or even a general direction.  To lose the number of games Crennel has consistently lost in his head coaching career takes the near perfect convergence of awful talent and coaching.
Switch over to Sunday’s loss to the middling San Diego Chargers.  So much of that loss stems from exactly what Pettine doesn’t bring to this team.  If Pettine is really as hard-nosed as we’ve been told, then his biggest failing comes from not instilling a similar mindset in his team.  That’s not his biggest failing.
As a side note “hard-nosed” is one of those grand football euphemisms, like “blue collar,” that’s supposed to conjure up an image of a team that relies less on smarts and more on brawn and work ethic to get the task of winning accomplished.  It’s a meaningless euphemism.  Less talented teams can and sometimes do succeed by the sheer force of their work ethic and tenacity.  But that’s rarely true in the NFL where personnel is remarkably similar team to team.  Put it this way and maybe exclude Cleveland in this sentence but if players at that level weren’t supremely talented, mentally, physically and emotionally, they would have never made it to the NFL in the first place.
Now what isn’t a euphemism at all and where teams often do reflect their head coach is in discipline and attention to detail.  One of the reasons Crennel took so long to become a head coach and then failed was his inability to bring the necessary attention and detail to the big picture.  Strong-willed miscreants like Braylon Edwards ran all over Crennel and it spilled onto the playing field in the form of one dismal penalty-laden performance after another.  The Browns’ failures in Crennel’s last season can most fairly be said to stem directly from Crennel’s loose grip on the reins of his team.
Pettine’s teams lack the kind of discipline those supposedly connote the hard-nosed team.  In Pettine’s year and a half tenure his teams have ranked near the top in the number of penalties per game, according to the website www.NFLPenalties.com  This ranking doesn’t even factor in penalties committed, only those accepted by the opposition. 
After 4 games the Browns are averaging nearly 9 penalties a game.   What’s as interesting is that the Browns also have one of the highest ratio of pre-snap penalties to overall penalties in the league under Pettine (and, frankly, basically every other coach before Pettine in the Browns 2.0 era).  That speaks to a revolving door of quarterbacks certainly and differing pre snap cadences.  But it also speaks to a lack of talent as its often overmatched offensive linemen seek to get a jump on their defensive counterparts.
Laying all of this at Pettine’s feet probably isn’t fair.  Much blame goes to the guy who employs him and supplied him with the players, and that would be Farmer. His handiwork was well on display against the Raiders a few weeks back.  That game showed the value of good drafting.  Amari Cooper and Derek Carr were excellent draft picks, particularly when compared to Johnny Manziel and Justin Gilbert.  The Browns could have had either or both and chose neither.  Farmer didn’t like Carr and seemingly hates all receivers.  That’s in essence why the Browns are still the Browns.
Pettine and Farmer are on borrowed time as it is.  Haslam may very well have already decided to clean house and now is just wrestling with whether it should be in season or the day after the season ends. Timing is tricky and keep in mind that midseason replacements kind of feel good for a minute but also tend to piss off season ticket holders who, in Cleveland anyway, like to hold on to the illusion that these games matter at least until the 9th or 10th game of the season.
It’s also possible that Haslam really is wrestling with another kind of dilemma.  He knows that if he holds on to Farmer and Pettine he’ll be trying to defy history that is absolute.  On the other hand, if he respects that history he runs head first into another absolute: he has no chance of getting the next decisions right, either. Ultimately, that’s probably what’s keeping him up most nights, the notion that buying the Browns may have been the dumbest idea he’s had since he set up a bonus program for the sales force at Pilot Flying J.