Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Numbing Sameness of It All, Again--Settling In Edition

If the Cleveland Browns are finally settling in as a franchise, it’s sure hard to tell at the moment.
In the last week or so, three different reports would suggest that the Browns’ front office is about as finely tuned as the ’86 Buick LeSabre that’s been sitting in your neighbor’s side yard for the last 10 years even as the team lurches ever closer to one of the more important college drafts in franchise history.
First came a column by Dr. David Chao, writing last Monday for the National Football Post web site, criticizing the Browns for not having a lead physician at the NFL Scouting Combine earlier in the month.  Dr. Chao wrote that in his 19 years of working at the combine he has never seen a team attend without a lead physician.
What’s the significance?  As Dr. Chao writes, with some bias perhaps, “medical has been referred to as the most important element at the Combine.”  That sounds a little over the top, but that doesn’t necessarily lessen the significance.  The value all NFL teams place on the draft cannot be overstated.  Ensuring that a player, particularly the early round types that perform at the Combine, is sound medically is a key factor in determining whether to invest millions into that player.

It’s not that the Browns didn’t have physicians at the Combine.  They did.  But the team was without a lead because for reasons that are undoubtedly purely financial, the team ended its decades long partnership with the Cleveland Clinic in favor of an exclusive partnership with University Hospitals and in doing so hasn’t yet settled on the final composition of its medical team.

This bit of dysfunction is exactly what we’ve come to expect from the Browns.  Seeking to monetize everything that is and isn’t nailed down, the Browns got caught in the transition between ending its sponsorship with one medical provider in favor of another.  All it did was impact their presence at the Combine but that surely isn’t nearly as important as making sure the check clears from University Hospitals and the signage is adjusted in the media room in Berea.
Not surprisingly, the Browns downplayed this bit of disarray in their usual way, by changing the narrative and not addressing the criticisms directly.  The other thing the Browns didn’t address was another key point made by Dr. Chao, that no one on the Browns’ medical staff has yet been admitted to the NFL Physicians Society.  As a result, no doctor at the Combine on behalf of the Browns was able to participate in all Combine-related activities.

In the grand scheme of all the loose threads that make up the fraying fabric of the Browns, this isn’t the most prominent.  But in a franchise barely hanging on, it’s just further evidence that the results on the field are not accidental but the consequence of a million other missteps well before each Football Sunday. 
On the heels of this report came two additional ones related to the pro days conducted by potential first rounders Teddy Bridgewater and Brian Bortles.  The Browns, a team in desperate need of a quarterback and possessing the first round juice to grab either one of these players, decided not to send their head coach, their quarterbacks coach or their general manager to either player’s workout.  The Browns’ P.R. machine, already buzzing at warp speed and on the brink of collapse itself, just decided to ignore the issue entirely.

So we don’t know exactly what message the Browns were sending by not sending key personnel to the workouts.  If this were a clever franchise, the more likely speculation would be that these pro days are as meaningless as Combine workouts, maybe more so, and by ignoring them the Browns avoid giving clues to other teams about their draft plans.  That’s if this was a clever franchise.
Far more likely, in the context of everything else, is a simpler explanation.  The same dysfunction on the business side that led to the inability of the Browns to field a full medical team at the Combine exists on the football side as well.  The Browns are still a mess in the front office owing to a poorly conducted head coaching search that took weeks, resulted in grabbing a guy no one else was even interviewing, and revealed the fissures within the organization that resulted in an overhaul of the front office.

Lending credence to this was an article in Crain’s Cleveland Business that indicated that the Browns’ front office under Joe Banner was organized in a manner unlike any other team in the NFL.  Instead of being split into distinct football and business operations whose leaders reported to the owner, the Browns had everything reporting directly to Joe Banner.  This worked to keep Haslam both insulated and unaware of what was taking place.  Indeed had Banner not decided to precipitously dump Rod Chudzinski, Haslam may never have noticed the source of the stench in Berea and Banner likely could have kept his fiefdom in place.

Taken together, what remains clear even to this date is that the Browns’ franchise is still highly dysfunctional to the point that they can’t even get their top people to the workouts of two quarterbacks that have to be high on their draft board.
And as if all of this wasn’t enough came still another report, this time from that restricted free agent center Alex Mack and his agents are busily trying to entice entire teams into crafting an offer that the Browns can’t match.  So far though, it isn’t working.

Now some of this is agents just being agents.  Still the more salient point is that instead of just trying to maximize his earnings, irrespective of the team, Mack and his agents are trying desperately to move Mack to another team.  Gee, I wonder why?  Could it be the revolving door in the owner’s office, the revolving door in the head coach’s office, the revolving door in the offensive coordinator’s office, the revolving door in the general manager’s office or the revolving door of blown draft picks coming and going that have him seeking greener pastures?
But I must confess one thing.  This is one area though where the Browns’ systemic dysfunction isn’t likely to have particularly ill effects.  Sometimes a team gets lucky that way.

Mack isn’t going anywhere and even if he is, does it much matter?  The Browns weren’t exactly a stellar offensive line with him so the drop off without him could hardly be noticed.
And if you think that’s a harsh assessment of a guy whose chief attribute to this point has been an ability to stay healthy, then listen to the market.  The sound that the lack of interest in Mack is deafening.  According to those same reports, Mack’s agents are having trouble drumming up any interest in him.  The $10 million salary he’s promised next season is a pretty tall barrier to get over and that’s just the value of the transition tag placed on him by the Browns.  To secure Mack in a way that the Browns, awash in cash they have to spend under league rules, won’t match will take an even greater investment than that. 

Virtually every other team in the league not named Oakland Raiders is smarter than the Browns so it’s not likely that anyone would invest that much in Mack. The reason?  Simply, there are plenty of centers to be had that could anchor this line and achieve similar results for less than $10 million a season.  The Browns will likely have the opportunity to draft one.  Remember, a team that’s won 4 to 5 games a year for going on a decade has no untouchable players.  Even if there are one or two, Mack isn’t them.
Still I’m sympathetic to Mack’s desire and not just because I’m a capitalist.  Mack has had to endure the business end of a whole lot of what’s ailed the Browns over the years and he like so many of his teammates is obviously worn down by it.  He’s probably thinking how nice it might be to go to a franchise where they’ve had a coach in place for more than a season and a quarterback who’s actually accomplished something in the league.

All of these reports highlight the inevitable outcomes of a franchise poorly run.  I know the Browns believe they have things fixed this time.  They’ll have to appreciate though that virtually anyone hearing them say that has heard the same thing before with the same predictable results. 

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