Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Steep Learning Curve Indeed

After about a week or so of letting the latest fire inside the Berea headquarters of the Cleveland Browns burn indiscriminately, owner Jimmy Haslam has spoken with the kind of earnestness that suggested a belief that his words would douse the flames while calming the masses. 
To lead with the positive, at least Haslam answered the questions posed. To point out the obvious, though, it didn’t help his case, the situation or the overarching narrative that the team remains where it’s been, in the gutter.
The biggest revelation, and taking a page from Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s book,  was Haslam trying to get ahead of the NFL’s imminent announcement that Ray Farmer, the team’s general manager, indeed brake league rules by texting coaches during games by announcing it himself.  Yes, apparently, Farmer did as alleged. 
Perhaps the bigger news though is that Haslam couldn’t care less.  Rather than offering up even an ounce of criticism that his chosen pick as general manager may be out of his element or, at the very least, not setting the right leadership example for others to follow, Haslam instead supported Farmer as if he had just pulled off the biggest coup since Kevin Costner procured Vontae Mack, Ray Jennings and Seattle’s top punt returner while still getting back the three first round picks he foolishly gave up to get the Johnny Manziel-like Bo Callahan.
In a story from Thursday’s Akron Beacon Journal, Haslam called Farmer “smart,” a description that’s hard to square with the stupidity of his misconduct.  He lavished praise about Farmer’s work ethic and his all around awesomeness.  Haslam even went to great pains to say that while he hates that his organization now looks like it’s run by dumbbells, he “hate[s] it more for Ray Farmer.  I can tell you it eats him up every day.”  Well, there is that.
It’s nice and good for team unity I suppose for Haslam to publicly support Farmer, even in such an over the top manner, but in many ways it’s done at the expense of slapping the fans across the face, hard. The NFL hasn’t yet announced the punishment the team will get but irrespective of whether it’s just a suspension of Farmer or something more serious, such as lost draft picks, is irrelevant.  The fans are left trying to justify for another whole off season exactly why they root for a team, let alone spend money to support it, that seems not just off message but off mission.
Then when you couple it with Haslam’s real intent, to rally the fans behind a guy who in just his first year of running the draft botched two first round picks and failed to secure any credible receivers despite knowing at the outset that Josh Gordon wasn’t going to be available to them, it makes you wonder whether Haslam even understands that he didn’t buy the team as a means to give goofs like Farmer a job, he bought it to supply entertainment to fans who just want the team to win once in a while.
 It’s all well and good that Haslam has such trust in Farmer.  The real question is why?
It’s as if that that question never occurred to Haslam.  Haslam responded to the question as to why Farmer shouldn’t be fired with the kind of praise one might reserve, say, for the general manager of the New England Patriots, not the beleaguered general manager who swung wildly and missed on two number one picks in the same draft.  Haslam said “I think you’ve got to look at [the] individual’s body of work, and we’re comfortable with Ray’s body of work.  We’re very comfortable.”  I’d love to know who the “we” is in that sentence.  Stated differently, that “we” certainly doesn’t include the fans.
In any event, it’s really quite fascinating stuff.  In the first place, Farmer’s body of work is pretty small, so even in that context “comfortable” wouldn’t seem to be an appropriate word. At best it would be “cautious.” For most it would be “scared.”  In the second place, what there is  of his body of work isn’t pretty.  He bungled the draft.  He knowingly broke NFL rules subjecting himself and his team to sanctions.  By all accounts he was at the center, if not the cause, of all the other dysfunction that resulted in the team virtually imploding once again by year’s end.  Maybe Haslam is satisfied because he’s comparing Farmer’s sins to those he’s presiding over at his own personal ATM, Pilot Flying J, and thinks, “at least Farmer wasn’t cooking the books.”
While his defense of Farmer is just downright puzzling, his defense of the way things are run generally in Berea call into question Haslam’s own judgment, if not his competence.  Responding to Jason Canfora’s widely reported story about the dysfunction in Berea Haslam  said “I don’t at all want people to think we think everything is great.  OK? We don’t.  What I want you to understand is we do work together.  It’s not dysfunctional….All I want to convey is we do get along, we do work well together and we’ve got a common goal.”
Concede that they do have a common goal and put that aside.  But even the most casual of fans can readily tell that this is a franchise that doesn’t work well together and hasn’t since Haslam and before Haslam.  In fact if there’s anything that’s been remarkably consistent it’s the inability of the front office to work well together irrespective of the people involved.
When a front office is working well together an offensive coordinator still under contract doesn’t put together a 32-point presentation on why he should be let out of his contract after one troubling year so he can go anywhere else.  A front office that’s working well together doesn’t dump still another quarterbacks coach in favor of someone even less accomplished than the guy they just let go.  A front office that works well together doesn’t pressure its rookie head coach into starting a quarterback who was no more ready for real NFL play than the fictional and aforementioned Bo Callahan.  A front office that’s working well together doesn’t ignore the red flags of the mercurial and controversial quarterback it drafted and then act surprised that said quarterback is now in rehab.  And for God’s sake, a front office that’s working well together doesn’t see the need to take a 3-day retreat immediately after the season in order to, as Haslam said, clarify roles, strategy, where it wants to go and how it’s going to get there.  If it really had been working well together, a retreat would have been the last thing it needed.
For all his cluelessness though, you can’t say that Haslam isn’t without humor, even if it was unintentional.  Talking about that recent retreat that Haslam and the front office took, he said “I actually felt that since our family bought the Browns, it’s the best week we’ve had.”  What about the fans?  When are they going to get their best week, which most as define as one that culminates in a Super Bowl title and a parade through Public Square. 
Haslam is a passionate owner, no doubt.  He is in the midst of a steep learning curve, as he admitted. What the interview revealed though is that Haslam is still pretty far down on that curve and that it’s getting steeper.  His faith in Farmer is misplaced if only because, although not certainly because, Farmer so embarrassed the organization at exactly the moment Haslam has been trying to project calmness and competence.  What ultimately will be Haslam’s undoing though as an owner is not this kind of misplaced faith disguised as loyalty, but his abiding miscalculation of the fan base he inherited.  The fans are fed up with the circus and don’t want to pay 30% more for the privilege of looking like fools and their money.

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