Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Numbing Sameness of It All, Again--Cultural Overhaul Edition

If you want to know the real benefit of being the new regime for the NFL’s most pathetic franchise, it’s this: you can clear the decks of the mistakes that aren’t yours and no one will criticize.  Indeed you’ve set yourself up for praise.
That’s how it is at the moment for new Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer and new head coach Mike Pettine.  In succession on Wednesday, Farmer settled most of the family business by cutting loose the two quarterbacks that started most of the team’s games last season, Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell.   For now, the only complaints are those directed at Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert, a long gone previous regime.
The moves weren’t unanticipated.  Nothing gives cover for making a harsh move than the absence of the knuckleheads responsible for drafting them in the first place.  Yet for those of you keeping track at home, this means that again as always the Browns officially are looking for a quarterback. Unofficially, nothing’s changed.  It also means that the books are now closed on the fate of the 2012 draft as both first round picks are no longer with the team, Trent Richardson having been traded to Indianapolis during last season.  Usually it takes a bit longer to evaluate a draft.
I’d have to do the kind of research that would really be a fitful waste of time to determine the last time a team had two picks in the first round and neither was with the team two years later.  Let’s just peg the number at zero because that’s what it probably is anyway.  (Interesting factoid:  3 times in this golden decade plus of the Browns 2.0, the team has had two draft picks in the first round.  The only non-bust of all 6 picks—Tim Couch, Courtney Brown, Joe Thomas, Brady Quinn, Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden—has been Thomas.  Couch and Brown lasted 5 lamentable years with the Browns, Quinn 3 and Weeden and Richardson 2.  Fascinating record, isn’t it?)
That Weeden was a colossal waste of a first round pick is a given.  Weeden was a bad decision from the outset.  No one drafts a 28 year old rookie quarterback in the first round.  Check that.  No one drafts a 28 year old rookie quarterback in any round.  No one, that is, except the Browns.  The thought process at the time was that Weeden would be more mature.  That was supposed to translate, I guess, into a shorter learning curve.
If there was one thing that was clear about Weeden, though, it was that virtually nothing translated.  Whatever he studied, whatever he worked on almost didn’t matter.  Weeden had the unusually consistent inability to put thought into positive action or learn from his mistakes.  The 3 straight weeks of awful off-balanced shovel passes late in games is the testament to his trend.  In fairness, there was one mistake he did learn from and that was that he had to get off the field during pregame more quickly after having gotten trapped under the American flag being unfurled in his first game.  The fact that he got caught under the flag in the first place and the struggle to free himself from its clutches ended up being the perfect metaphor for his NFL career.
Where to place Weeden in the Parthenon that is the Browns’ colossal waste of first round picks is far more difficult for two reasons.  First, the list is long, the hall is filled.  Second, some of those picks (Couch, Browns) hung around longer than their shelf life because the regime that blew the picks hung around longer than its shelf life.  So tenure in and of itself is most irrelevant.
But let’s ponder it just for a moment anyway.  Is Weeden closer to Tim Couch or Brady Quinn?  Is he Gerald Warren or Courtney Brown?  Braylon Edwards or William Green?  Does it matter?  Not at this point.
This is of course what really ails the Browns most.  They have been systematically, almost deliberately, awful at the draft.  No matter the pedigree, no matter the resume, the paid professionals put in charge of picking from among the 10 or so best college players repeatedly guessed wrong.
This record, too, extends beyond the first round.  The Browns have been phenomenally unsuccessful in the second round as well during this 2.0 era.   Their most “successful” second round picks have been Dennis Northcutt and D’Qwell Jackson.  The least successful is a far longer list and includes the particularly golden trio, all drafted in 2009 by Eric Mangini, of Brian Robiski, Mohamed Massaquoi and David Veikune.
This is the key to why the Browns have been so awful for so long.  It’s hard to add depth when there’s no core to work with.  The inevitable undrafted free agents that fill out every team’s rosters end up holding much more prominent roles with the Browns because the supposed studs drafted as starters rarely have panned out.  No team can progress past a 4-5 win season until it can find a way to draft a player in the first or second round that can actually contribute not just immediately but for the long term as well.
All this is the history that Farmer has stacked up in his office in Berea like musty boxes in an attic or containers of yogurt in the back of the refrigerator. Someone had the idea that it was best to keep them but moved out before you could ask them why.  So the task fell to Farmer to clean the place up and that’s essentially what he did by parting with Weeden and Campbell.
Weeden may latch on to another team looking for a back up, similar to Colt McCoy, similar to Brady Quinn.  But his fate is cast.  A quarterback that fails in Cleveland doesn’t get a fresh start anywhere else.  Weeden is 30 years old now and has failed in two professional sports.  Farmer did him a favor.  It really is time for Weeden to move on to his life’s work.
So kudos to Farmer for not staying vested in a player based on his draft position.  The only way to build a new culture is to actually build the new culture and keeping players around that were responsible for the old culture can’t be part of the new equation.
Perhaps that was really the thinking behind Farmer’s free agent signings this week.  Farmer’s been active in the market but active in the same way that a person running on a treadmill is active. He likely feels better for having exercised but he’s stayed in place accomplishing that task.  Swapping out T.J. Ward for Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby for D’Qwell Jackson doesn’t necessarily signify progress unless the real goal is cultural overhaul.  Statistically, the players are interchangeable.
Undoubtedly there are more moves to make.  The Browns seem to have swung for a few fences, particularly in the case of Darrelle Reavis, and missed.  That’s not a surprise.  The Browns are a tough sell, as their coaching search attests.  But money often does trump nearly everything else so expect a few more signings to fill in some of the gaps.  Recently signed tight end Jim Dray is an example, Running back Ben Tate , if they sign him, is another.
Teams like the Browns can’t improve through free agency alone, even when the goal is cultural. But the key to the Browns’ free agent acquisitions stem from the new attitudes in the locker room.   Guys that sign big new contracts tend to bring a new enthusiasm and perspective. 
The real trick for Farmer will be the draft.  He has plenty to work with and a fairly deep draft class.  The most difficult decision he faces is the same faced by his predecessors.  He needs to find a permanent, competent occupant for the quarterback position.  It won’t be easy.  It hasn’t been for anyone else.
The popular thought at the moment is that the Browns will place their near term faith in Brian Hoyer, sign an experienced back up, and then take a quarterback a bit later in the draft with the hope of developing him over time.  That sounds like the typical NFL executive plan, the kind of thinking Holmgren used in drafting a quarterback late every year.  I’m still waiting for that plan to work just once in this era.
The Browns don’t need to draft a quarterback for the indeterminate future.  They need to draft a quarterback who can play tomorrow.  Quarterbacks out of college are far more prepared for the NFL than they’ve ever been owing to all of the specialized coaching they’ve received over the years.  Teams, and as importantly, fans expect as much production out of a rookie quarterback as they do out of a rookie linebacker. 
If this team wants to develop a quarterback then they need to take the plunge and draft one in the first round and throw him into the mix right away.  If Hoyer proves to be the better quarterback in training camp, great.  But the notion that a blue chip quarterback will develop down the road out of the scrap heap that is the later rounds of the draft is just wishful, worthless thinking at this point.
The fans in Cleveland can tolerate plenty, obviously.  But on the list of things that will push them over the cliff number one is a front office that continues to do the same things in the same way hoping for a different result.  There’s a reason Holmgren failed here and it starts and ends with his horse and buggy approach to constructing a NFL team.  This is Farmer’s time.  He’s begun the process of changing the culture and now he needs to take it to the next step by sending the clear message that there is nothing about how the Browns previously went about doing business, be it through free agency or the draft, is worth preserving.

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