Friday, March 28, 2014

The Real House of Cards


If ever there was a doubt there can be no more. The house of cards that is the NCAA and the satellites that orbit around it are on the verge of collapse.

A money-printing operation, their very existence these days is wholly dependent on the revenue streams from a few key functions they sponsor, like March Madness and football as played in the bowl subdivision. There are television and radio fees, jersey sales, sponsorships, you name it and the NCAA, the major conferences and the member schools have found a way to make money off it. Boy have they, to the tune of billions, a year.

The reason this house of cards is now closer to collapsing than ever stems from the foundation on which its existence is built—the myth of the so-called student/athlete. Without the thousands of students working in the service of these the two big revenue sports, football and men’s basketball, for a pittance of the revenue they generate, these groups could not muster enough revenue opportunities on their own accord to sustain a corner grocery let alone the hierarchy it has built for itself. Indeed their raison d’etre would cease.

The latest blow came in a case in which the NCAA wasn’t even a party. A couple of those wiseacre football players at Northwestern found enough time away from their football obligations to use the student part of the student-athlete equation to take their grievances to the National Labor Relations Board in a quest to unionize. Their hope, I guess, is that if successful Northwestern officials will be forced to bargain with them over what, exactly? Better food? Less work hours? Beer Pong tables in the players’ lounge?

I give those Northwestern kids a lot of credit. This is a war they can’t win but because they’re kids they’re just dumb enough to believe otherwise. What their lawyers, or more accurately, their sponsors at the United Steelworks probably didn’t tell them is that the NLRB’s decision finding them to be “employees” as defined under the National Labor Relations Act and hence eligible to unionize likely won’t survive all the years of appeal it will take to bring the case to an end. The Board’s regional director in Chicago issued an incredibly flawed decision, speaking legally. Speaking practically, however, the regional director’s decision is another hard wind threatening to tumble the NCAA for the sin of exploiting the concept of student-athlete for their own financial gain.

To summarize what happened without getting into all of the legalese, senior Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter got the bright idea (or had it implanted in him, more likely) to go about trying to unionize his fellow teammates. The theory was that given all the time and trouble they go to in the service of Northwestern’s football team and the “compensation” they receive from that service in the form of scholarships makes them employees under the law and thus eligible to form a union, their scholarship serving as an employment contract and their showing up for practice and games being the work performed in exchange. What exactly they’d do once they became a union hasn’t exactly been clear but that’s beside the point. The quest is for a recognition of their status as a key cog in the NCAA’s sports machine.

The NLRB regional office in Chicago agreed. In a 24-page ruling, Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr essentially agreed with the argument, at least as it pertained to scholarship players, that they function as employees of the university. The walk ons that dot the back end of Northwestern’s roster, on the other hand, are out of luck. Ohr said that they play “for the love of the game” and not the compensation that the scholarship players get. That makes them more in the nature of volunteers and not employees. No union for them.

Here’s where it gets tricky for the student/athlete/employees. The appeals process in labor actions like this is almost unending. There’s a long history in this country of employers using labor laws to avoid having to collectively bargain and the way those laws are set up, the appeal process can and usually does take years.

For example, the first step is for the NCAA to appeal the regional director’s decision to the full NLRB in Washington, D.C. That’s simple enough. But if they’re unsuccessful there, Northwestern has no immediate appeal to court. Instead, the convoluted process requires first that an election be held among the players. Rare is the union election that goes off without a hitch, which means that Northwestern will object to some aspect of it. That’s just more grist for the mill.

If the union wins the election, it will require Northwestern officials sit down and bargain with them. The university can and will refuse, setting up the inevitable court battle. Once the university refuses to bargain, complaining that the student/athletes aren’t employees and/or that the election process was flawed, that same regional director in Chicago will issue an unfair labor practice complaint. That will lead to a trial which then will get further appealed landing, eventually, in front of a Federal court of appeals. Once a decision has been reached by that court, the losing party can appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If you have the sense that this process I just described might takes years or, stated differently, another 6 or 7 years of losing seasons for Northwestern football, you’d be correct. If you have the sense that at least the process has an end point, you’d be wrong.

Let’s say that after all this time and all these trials and appeals and elections that the determination that the Northwestern football players are indeed employees under the National Labor Relations Act, the university has more cards to play. Given how long that initial determination ultimately will take, every person who originally voted for the union will long since have graduated and left the university. This will give the university the opportunity to next argue that the original vote is no longer valid because it doesn’t reflect the desires of the current group of students and that a new one should be held. They’ll take that complaint to the NLRB And on and on it will go.

Maybe this gets resolved in a decade, maybe not.

Then of course is an entirely different issue to contend with: the application of this decision to other schools. This decision is specific to Northwestern, a private college. It has no application to, for example, public institutions like Ohio State, which aren’t even covered by the National Labor Relations Act. Student-athlete/employees at those schools will have to resort to a patchwork of state labor laws to try and form a union. Let’s just say that public schools in the south have nothing to worry about. Those states have a distinguished history of being unfair to organized labor. Just check out what’s been taking place in Tennessee and the United Auto Workers if you don’t believe me.

In other words, this decision has no impact if the goal of these players at Northwestern at this moment have any realistic hope of sitting down with the president of the university and hammering out a collective bargaining agreement.

Where the decision does have impact is further exposing the fraud of big time college athletics. Again, though not a party to the NLRB action, Ohr’s decision spells out in rather dry but stark words the enormous commitment the NCAA allows schools to impose on a college football player, particularly one at a FBS school, in order to keep the NCAA’s money machine going.

During the season, playing football even at Northwestern, is a full time job requiring somewhere between 50-60 hours commitment per week. Academics consume about 13-18 hours of class time per week plus whatever homework or labs are required. That’s a pretty taxing schedule for anyone, let alone a young adult. It was this disparity, more than anything, which seemed to catch the eye of Ohr in his decision.

On the surface that does look like the work dominates the academics so to that extent Ohr has it right when football is in season. But one of the flaws in the decision is that Ohr only considered the time commitment during the football season. These so-called employees are on campus for the rest of the school year, indeed the majority of the school year, when their time commitment to the sport is significantly less. Eventually the balance between what they provide to the university trends back toward the rather mundane existence of just being students.

No matter. The real issue is not these players anyway. This comes down to the gross inequity between what those who control the system receive and what those who fuel the engine get. The student-athletes, a term the NCAA simply made up to avoid other legal consequences decades ago, are starting to get the rather uppity idea that a free four year education is hardly enough. There are millions of damning examples but just consider one from last week: Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith got an $18,000 bonus because one of the wrestlers at the school won a national championship. The wrestler got nothing except the glory of having achieved a goal.

Wherever you come out on that issue is bound to change because the disparity literally grows every day and until there is a meaningful way to address it, the disparity will continue to grow and the protests will grow even louder.

The NLRB case, in truth, is a loud but minor distraction at the moment. The real case threatening the financial underpinnings of the NCAA and hence its very existence is that which is heading to trial filed by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon. It seeks a cut of the money the NCAA is getting from exploiting the likenesses of former players on such things as video games. It’s a massive class action lawsuit that also includes as its defined class current players. It’s what we call in the legal business “bet the company” litigation because if the company doesn’t prevail in court it doesn’t prevail at all. If the NCAA loses it will owe almost everything it has to pay for damages. Beyond that, though, the NCAA will find that it can no longer exist.

What’s fascinating to me in this whole debate is how utterly helpless the NCAA and the member schools seem to act as if they have no choice but to conduct business the way they do right now. They further that narrative under the guise that their most important guiding principle is preserving the myth of the student-athlete.

For the NCAA to actually reform will require that it and its member schools face the more complicated reality of all the intended and unintended consequences flowing from the system they cherish. In business terms, the NCAA needs a new paradigm and they’re the only ones that don’t seem to accept that reality. A key tenant of that new paradigm has to be the recognition, financially, of the players that keep this train running. A great education is worth plenty but it is hardly enough.

The system is headed for collapse if it remains on its current course. The NCAA can spend literally millions in legal fees to fight every skirmish like this one but doing so only threatens its ability to survive even further. Far better now to confront the damning unfairness of the system and fix it. That may not be easy but it is, after all, only money and there's enough of it to go around and make everyone happy instead of just a relative few. If they can't find to work through this most high class of problems themselves then someone, a court, maybe Congress, will do it for them. And if that happens then the house of cards is unlikely to ever rise again.



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. 

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.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Numbing Sameness of It All, Again--Crazy Is as Crazy Does Edition

At many manufacturing facilities, a sign is posted chronicling the number of days since a lost time accident. Each day a new number is added until an accident occurs. It’s a nice reminder to the workers there to be safety conscious.  At the Cleveland Browns’ facility in Berea they ought to consider erecting a similar sign, only this one recording the number of days since a major front office disaster.  By my count, it’s been nearly a week since they had to reset the clock.

Last week the bomb dropped that Mike Pettine was not the team’s first choice as head coach.  To anyone following, that bomb hardly made noise in and of itself.  What was news was the extreme measures the team was willing to take to avoid hiring Pettine, such as trading some of the draft picks they had accumulated to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for their current head coach, Jim Harbaugh.

That the story broke seemed to be a little vindictive slip from the lips of the recently deposed Joe Banner or, even more likely, those of Mike Lombardi.  Trolls like those two never quite go quietly, even when they’re being paid to leave.

Owner Jimmy Haslam, exhibiting all the savvy of a new owner, essentially confirmed the story when being tight lipped might have worked better.  As a result, a shit storm opened up in San Francisco (though who cares?) and it once again made the Browns look like the most ill run franchise since the last time they looked like the most ill run franchise, which was probably a week or so before that.

While we’ll likely never know exactly the package that Banner/Lombardi floated San Fran’s way to set up a twice year Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh in the AFC North, conclusions can still be drawn.  For instance, when assessing the team’s needs, the prior brain trust felt that coaching was the biggest hole to fill.  Forget Brandon Weeden’s misfiring arm and ability to read defenses, forget the absence of a running back, forget a defense that was weak at nearly every position.  What this team really needed apparently was a head coach with some street cred.  That is how much Banner and Lombardi hated the job Rob Chudzinski was doing.

To this point no one seems to have yet asked whether Banner and Lombardi pursued trades for any other coaches or whether it was Harbaugh or bust.  It seems like if they reached all the way across the country for Harbaugh that perhaps they tried other more geographically friendly coaches.  Did they pursue Bill Belichick?  What about John Harbaugh?  Did Haslam call one of the Rooneys and ask if Mike Tomlin was available for a few draft picks? 

And if Harbaugh, Jim not John, was the only target, why him?  That seems a little shortsighted, as if Banner and Lombardi didn’t realize how much fans in Cleveland hate anything and everyone associated with Michigan.  Isn’t that what Braylon Edwards claimed when he was in the process of blowing up his career in Cleveland?

It’s really intriguing to ponder what Banner and Lombardi thought they’d accomplish by trading for Harbaugh or another active coach.  In a sense it’s a suggestion that the players weren’t the problem all these last several years, it was the lousy coaches.  That’s a pretty big stretch considering that in 9 of the last 11 (Holy God, 11?) seasons the Browns have won either 4 or 5 games.

It is true that the Browns haven’t exactly been coached by the cream of the coaching crop during that woeful stretch.  And to this point not a single one of the team’s former coaches, most of whom are probably receiving checks from either Randy Lerner directly or the Browns franchise, has gone on to enjoy success as a head coach since they left the Browns.  Only two have gotten other head coaching jobs at all—Butch Davis at North Carolina and Romeo Crennel at Kansas City.  Neither of those jobs ended well for them, either.  So a point could be made that bad coaching is indeed at the root of all of the Browns’ evils.

But let’s not give short shrift to the various players with whom those coaches had to work.  It also reads as a who’s who of mediocrity.  Like the dispensed with coaches, none of the quarterbacks who failed here succeeded anywhere since.  Some, like Colt McCoy and Brady Quinn, on occasion, toil as back ups.  Most are out of football all together.  The same holds true for the running backs, defensive backs, linebackers, linemen, you get the picture.

On the one hand there’s a chicken and egg level dilemma here, at least as Banner and Lombardi saw it.  They figured that upgrading the coaching would eventually beget better teams.  Someone else might reasonably think that the coaches would have looked better had the players been better.  Irrespective it’s a riddle that need not be solved.

The common thread to all this are the people in the middle, the Banners and Lombardis of the world.  They’re the ones that have been doing the picking on both sides of the equation for all these years (except when a guy like Davis was doing both).  What the Browns’ incredible streak demonstrates above all else is that if you want to upgrade a franchise, upgrade the front office first.

I suspect that’s the conclusion Haslam came to as well, for what the Harbaugh trade story really does is illustrate how batshit nuts Banner and Lombardi really were as front office executives.  The rest of the story is that Haslam came to the same conclusion, just a week or so too late.

The Browns’ under Banner and Lombardi weren’t necessarily any different than say, the Browns under Holmgren.  Crazy is as crazy does.  Holmgren vacillated with Eric Mangini and fretted over whether he wanted to return to coaching.  He ended up with a dynamo in Pat Shurmur as a result.  Banner scoffed at Shurmur and went after Chudzinski in a fever and then praised the selection as if he had just married Jessica Biel after divorcing Paula Deen.

When Chudzinski didn’t measure up to whatever shifting metrics Banner and Lombardi were applying, they dumped him and undertook the most torturous, most troubled, most ridiculous head coaching search in the history of organized sports.  Haslam stood back and let it all be, including the ill fated trade for Harbaugh.  When Banner ended up with the 38th name on a list that was only 10 names deep originally, Haslam finally, mercifully pulled the plug.

Both Haslam and new general manager Ray Farmer now find themselves married to Pettine for better or worse, which is hardly where either would like to have been or should have been if Haslam had just pulled the plug quicker on the flea circus Banner and Lombardi were running. 

That sinking feeling Haslam had in his gut, the one he referenced when he fired Banner and Lombardi, didn’t appear overnight.  He had it for days if not weeks and instead of just watching the incompetence unfold beyond the point of no return, Haslam should have acted sooner. 

That’s water over the dam at this point but is instructive nonetheless because Haslam can’t abide Farmer not to be the next Gil Brandt and Haslam and Farmer can’t abide having Pettine flame out quickly, at least if they don’t want to have to keep resetting the clock on the banner outside of Berea that currently reads “7 days since our last implosion.”