About the only thing you can really conclude about the disaster that is the Cleveland Browns is that even when they make the right moves they still look like amateurs.
Details spilling out from the inside pen of Monday Morning Quarterback’s Peter King aren’t particularly flattering or reassuring. Despite all the prevarication from deposed CEO Joe Banner on the comprehensive nature of the Browns’ head coaching search, it appears as though it was that very process, ill conceived in designed and then poorly executed, that did in Banner and the apparition known as Mike Lombardi.
King writes, for example, that when Banner interviewed former Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhut once again for the Browns’ opening, Whisenhut asked Banner at the outset why the Browns simply didn’t hire him last year, the implication of course being that had they there would be no need for another “process” this year.
Banner was his usual smug self, telling Whisenhut it was because he didn’t think Whisenhut was going to be able to put together a championship caliber coaching staff. That’s laughable for a couple of reasons.
First, while former head coach Rob Chudzinski apparently was able to do just that, it still wasn’t good enough to allow him to keep his job anyway. So much for focusing on the wrong subjects. Second, assembling a champion caliber staff wasn’t a barrier in hiring new head coach Mike Pettine. You won’t find anyone in the league who believes that Pettine’s staff meets the criteria of being championship caliber. Jim O’Neil, the defensive coordinator, has never held that job. Kyle Shanahan has had a mixed career thus far but nothing about it screams “outstanding" let alone championship caliber. Below them it doesn’t get any better, either.
King also writes that both Bill Belichick and Urban Meyer called Banner directly to strongly recommend Greg Schiano for the opening. Belichick in fact called him twice. Had it been up to Banner he wouldn’t have even bothered to acknowledge either call. Owner Jimmy Haslam decided to at least follow up on the recommendations and he and Banner flew to Florida to interview Schiano. Per King, Banner was his usual smug self (does he have any other demeanor?) but Haslam was intrigued. Nonetheless Banner won out and Schiano wasn’t seriously considered.
I’m not sure Schiano was the right fit anyway given his problems in Tampa. Indeed that hiring would likely have hit fans in about the same way as Randy Lerner’s hiring of Eric Mangini. Still, Banner’s conduct speaks volumes about his vaunted “process.” We know though it did have an impact, a pretty unfavorable one, on Haslam.
This is really the telling point because more than anything else it completely discredits Haslam’s claim that the franchise’s reputation as toxic and radioactive is a media creation. No, sorry. The reputation is being spread by those inside the league who know that the dysfunction was a Banner creation borne out of his need to look important. Maybe Banner didn’t get enough love as a child.
It also speaks to exactly what happens whenever the Browns are in the mix. Nothing, but nothing can go right. Banner was thrust on Haslam by the league but Haslam disclaims that it was a shotgun marriage. He told King he could have declined to hire Banner but felt Banner was the right fit, much the same way that Lerner felt Mike Holmgren was the right fit.
Then of course is the story that was circulating earlier and not in the King column regarding former offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s impassioned and noisy departure. Turner reportedly gave Haslam and Banner who likely was listening as he played Flappy Birds on his iPhone) a blistering assessment of the team's problems including that the treatment of Chudzinski was unfair and that he and the entire coaching staff did exactly as Banner had ordered and now were being fired for doing the job they were told to do. Haslam had to love hearing that from someone with far deeper NFL experience than Haslam or Banner will ever gain.
The larger question that King’s column and the Turner story raises is exactly why Haslam didn’t jump sooner to kill the beast that he’d allowed to live. Taken together it was pretty clear during the interview process that Banner was out of his element, Donny. Unquestionably Haslam had his reservations, too, but treated them like a nagging pain in his gut that he couldn’t quite identify.
Haslam waited until Pettine, nobody’s choice for anything but a defensive coordinator’s role in Buffalo, was under contract as the Browns new head coach before coming to the conclusion that Banner had to go. Haslam had to support Pettine at the press conference because he had no choice. That said, and despite suggestions to the contrary from others, Pettine can’t feel comfortable about how this has all gone down given what’s now come out. If Pettine can’t grasp the essence and import of the issue, that Haslam is now questioning ALL of Banner’s decisions, then Pettine, too, is out of his element, Donny.
So in a sense, Haslam wasn’t quite impetuous enough. Had he really followed his instincts and dumped Banner far earlier, it’s highly doubtful that Pettine would be the coach today. More likely the Browns would have ended up with Josh McDaniels, Adam Gase or Dan Quinn. That doesn’t mean that Pettine won’t succeed. He might, particularly given the changes that Haslam belatedly made. But his resume in comparison to the others available who wouldn’t come near the job with Banner in charge suggests that once again the Browns and their fans were shortchanged.
But hey, this is what you get when your franchise is a league laughingstock. Things don’t go the way they should precisely because it is run, if not by idiots, then incompetents. The sad truth in all of this is that Haslam is still trying to figure out exactly how much he doesn’t know but charging fans premium prices as he goes through his own learning curve.
Meanwhile, the Browns are sitting on some truly valuable NFL assets in the form of draft picks and cash and have probably the most inexperienced staff in the NFL guarding them. Ray Farmer comes highly recommended but he hasn’t made a draft pick in his life and his first foray will be under the white hot lights of local and national scrutiny, the likes of which he’s never faced before.
Farmer could very well be up to the task but why is it that Cleveland fans always have to be the lab rats for every bizarre experiment? I’m glad Haslam rid the franchise of the evil Banner and the inscrutable Lombardi but that doesn’t directly equate to having faith that the rookies now in charge will be up to the task.Haslam’s biggest risk in all of this is not that he jettisoned two discredited bumpkins. It’s that he turned around and he gave the keys to his Ferrari to a kid with a learner’s permit. I guess the good in all of that is that even if Farmer chokes it doesn’t make the franchise worse. That, friends, would be impossible. All it really does is lengthen the timeline to achieving the very modest goal of making this franchise respectable. But heck, fans here are used to that anyway. They’ve waited 15 years now, what’s another 15 among friends?