If there was a telling moment in the strange, if only because of timing, press conference that Mike Holmgren conducted earlier this week it was this. The outgoing president said he was hired to essentially be former owner Randy Lerner’s surrogate. Sure enough, that’s what he became, a reclusive, indecisive, hem-hawing mess of an executive in a job that seemed perfect in theory and a disaster in practice. You know, pretty much the working definition of Lerner’s tenure as the reluctant owner he was.
Ok, so there was another telling moment in the press conference as well and it was that the aging has-been still desires to coach. What’s so telling about that statement is that he had every opportunity to jump into that fray in Cleveland and perhaps actually start righting the ship but declined in favor of doing Pat Shurmur a solid by giving him his first head coaching job.
Nothing about Holmgren’s tenure as the president of the Browns makes much sense in retrospect. Holmgren was asked again about why he wasted a year by keeping Mangini in place and gave the same stock answer—he wanted to be fair to Mangini. That sounds fine except for the fact that his charge was broader than protecting a member of the coaching fraternity. Holmgren was charged with putting the pieces together of a franchise that’s been in shambles since that day it was established in its reconstituted from. It was supposed to be at times a difficult job that would probably result in some blood being spilled.
It was from that moment on where Holmgren essentially did a disservice to fans of the Cleveland Browns. Unfortunately it didn't get much better from there.
That the Browns have a new owner is meaningful only because until last Tuesday that Browns effectively functioned without an owner. Lerner wasn’t the worst owner in the history of professional sports. Once Ted Stepien thrust himself on the world the award for worst owner was permanently retired. But Lerner was a bad owner because he was so indifferent about his stake.
No one would have much cared if Lerner played the rich, indifferent bounder if he had been doing so AFTER hiring people who ran counter to his type. But Lerner’s dispassionate attitude permeated a culture in Berea that was quickly adopted by all who orbited around him. Ultimately the same reasons that Lerner was a lousy owner are the same reasons that Holmgren was a lousy president of the Browns.
I’m not sure if the role of president just didn’t fit Holmgren or that Holmgren worked to hard to fit into the role of Lerner surrogate, right down to the almost non-sensical rantings of alleged passion that were completely untethered to the reality of his conduct.
What Lerner never understood about his role is exactly the same thing Holmgren never stood about his role and what ultimately doomed them both. No one ever saw Lerner put in a lick of work toward improving this team and its prospects. Ditto for Holmgren. Both told us how hard they were working behind the scenes and asked the fans to essentially take the truth of those assertions on a leap of faith.
It’s a strange dynamic, certainly, but in the kind of high profile roles both Lerner and Holmgren occupied, it was incumbent upon them to actually show the fans that they were working hard, even if it was exactly that, a show.
Fans may not like the jobs that Tom Heckert and Shurmur are doing, but at least they can see them both working. Players come and go, sometimes on a daily basis, as the Browns fiddle with their roster. That’s the work of Heckert. Practices are conducted daily and the Browns play weekly. That’s the work of Shurmur. Irrespective of the results, there’s not question that each is putting in the time.
Holmgren and Lerner on the other hand had an aversion to working in public. Lerner gave a handful of interviews in the 10 years or so of his ownership but these were always after the season. Once in awhile he was forced to do something publicly, as when he had to chastise Phil Savage for, well, being an idiot by f-bombing a fan. The theory, and it was really only just that, a theory, about Lerner was that he was publicity shy. But a competing theory, equally valid as invalid, was that Lerner simply didn’t want to be discovered as a phony. There’s something about the camera that both reveals and defines character and from all outward appearances, the privately nice guy was nothing more than an empty sport coat.
That’s where Holmgren and Lerner departed. Holmgren wasn’t a phony, certainly. He was just an old football coach kicked upstairs as the pressures and anxieties of coaching grew beyond his ability to manage them. Sure he missed the limelight as he occasionally flirted with the idea of returning to the sidelines, including right before Shurmur was hired. And you get the sense, don’t you, that while Holmgren liked the idea of giving the job to Shurmur, he really couldn’t see anyone else occupying the only real job he ever wanted—head coach in the NFL.
I wrack my brain trying to find one accomplishment of note of the Holmgren era and can find none. Indeed it’s far easier to find the flaws of his approach, from the wasted year of Mangini to the testy, ill-conceived press conferences, to the decision to not go all in on Robert Griffin III. Argue all you want that the franchise is in better shape now then it was when Holmgren came in but you’ll have trouble finding objective proof to back it up.
I had high hopes for Holmgren because of his reputation. And while I still believe that Holmgren could have done great things here, what I didn’t anticipate was that Holmgren wouldn’t go “all in” on his new role, deliberately undermining the very goals he set for himself and the franchise.
I assumed Holmgren would embrace the role just as he said he would, made excuses early on when he claimed to be working behind the scenes from the comfy confines of his home in Arizona (or Seattle, but certainly not Cleveland), and then finally had my eyes opened wide when he admitted that he had no idea that half of this year’s roster was composed of freshmen and sophomores.
In the pantheon of disasters that have been owners/front office/coaches/managers in Cleveland sports history, Holmgren only cracks, maybe, the top 25. But as an allegedly transformational figure of the moment, his place in our community’s ever growing Hall of Shame should be preserved forever.
The press conference Joe Banner, the team’s new CEO (new person, new title) was numbing in its sameness. That’s not criticism of Banner, it’s just that you won’t find a sentence either Banner or Haslam uttered that fans haven’t heard before and before and before and before that, too. Every new face that travels through Berea says pretty much the same thing because, frankly, there’s nothing much else that can be said.
I’d say that Banner has his work cut out for himself but no more so than Holmgren had or Phil Savage or fill in the blank with whatever name you want. The Browns 2.0 was a hastily assembled franchise thanks to the NFL and its dithering over choosing the initial owner and it’s never really caught up.
If there was one thing that has even the slightest whiff of new from Banner it was his acknowledgement that this franchise doesn’t need another 5-year plan to turn itself around. I couldn’t agree more. Whatever else you might feel about the roster at this moment, the paradigm has shifted in the NFL. Player movement has never been greater. The draft is as important as ever but clever teams with good general managers can and do build depth much more quickly when the draft was the only way to fill out a team. With less rounds and hence more unsigned free agents and the significant number of mid-level type free agents available every off season, improving this roster isn’t nearly as hard as the fans have been told it is.
There’s a reason a team like the New England Patriots is a perennial contender despite turning over its roster each off season as much as any other team in the league. Sure, having Tom Brady, one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks ever, on your side is a huge draw for potential free agents. But more to the point is the simple fact that love him or hate him Bill Belichick’s real talent isn’t necessarily his game day coaching but his approach to roster building. He consistently finds undervalued players (from a salary cap perspective) signs them while simultaneously discarding higher marquee and often overvalued (again, from a salary cap perspective) players. Belichick’s brought the concept of WARP, the ultimate geek stat from baseball, to pro football and it’s worked.
If nothing else that’s where the Browns’ deep thinkers have consistently failed this franchise. They make lousy free agent acquisitions and I’m not just or even talking about brand names. I’m talking about all the integral pieces and parts that build the depth and make it palatable for a team to incur injuries to its starters. No team can win when its backup to a player like Joe Haden, a decent but certainly not elite defensive back, and plugs in Buster Skrine.
If you want further evidence as to how the paradigm has changed then look no further than the willingness of virtually every team to play a rookie quarterback right out of the gate. It’s an acknowledgement that today’s crop of quarterbacks, products of the increasing emphasis on skills building from middle school on up, are just better prepared for the pro game then their predecessors.
If Heckert and Holmgren can conclude after just one season that Colt McCoy isn’t going to cut it as a top tier quarterback, why is it that those kinds of decisions can’t be made at every spot on the roster? The answer is that of course they can and they should.
That’s where, I think, Banner’s assessment of Heckert will matter. I don’t know who ultimately lost his nerve in trying to pull off the trade for Robert Griffin III, but it’s that lack of foresight that actually permeates the thinking in Berea now and for all the previous years of Browns 2.0 as well. It manifests in the big ways like the failed trade to get the rights to draft Griffin, and in the small ways like talking themselves out of signing this free agent or that, you know the kind that build depth.
Is it just me or is Shurmur getting more and more testy with each passing day? We can only go by what we see, as an old coach used to tell the fans, and right now Shurmur is a guy working on the edge and for good reason.
You can dissect Sunday's game against the Colts in a hundred different ways but you're still left with an overarching feeling that the team just wasn't quite ready to play. The mistakes weren't confined to the rookies. Veterans like Ray Ventrone and Reggie Hodges were doing some pretty boneheaded things as well. One the mistakes multiply like they did on Sunday it tends to be evidence of a team that lack sufficient preparation.
Shurmur is under fire because he's a lousy game day coach. He's also going to find himself feeling even tighter in the shorts if his team keeps playing like a mistake-ridden mess. And if Shurmur is going to get prickly with the media types asking questions about what everyone can readily see, then Shurmur isn't long for this job. He'll need to fall back under the radar accorded a coordinator.
It was amusing to hear Shurmur say in his press conference Monday, in response to a question about the rather physical reaction Haslam had to the pass that Josh Gordon dropped, that Shurmur likes to keep his emotions in check. Yea, we noticed. It barely looks like he's breathing, as if he's using the tension and tug of game day to work on some far flung yoga breathing technique.
It also was amusing because it seemed to be a little backhanded at Haslam, a way of saying that Haslam too should keep his emotions in check. One of the abiding problems with this franchise is that it's been permeated by Type C personalities. It's kind of nice to see a Type A holding the keys to the castle at the moment.
Considering how tense Shurmur's been lately, this week's question to ponder: How long will it be before Shurmur has his Jim Mora moment?