Friday, October 30, 2015

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Culture Matters.

After the Cleveland Browns once again embarrassed themselves and their fans with a performance as pitiful as any in the 2.0 era, I cleansed the palate by heading to the movies to see Steve Jobs.  It’s an excellent movie but what it tells you about the Browns is probably more useful than the latest iOS update.
The point of Jobs was more or less made late in the movie when Jobs and his former partner, Steve Wozniak, were engaged in a heated discussion prior to the launch of the iMac.  With Apple in transition following Jobs’ return and on the verge of laying off hundreds of workers, Wozniak wanted Jobs to acknowledge at the iMac launch the contributions that the team that created Apple’s initial signature computer, the Apple II. Wozniak wanted it as a gift to those being laid off, letting them know, and by proxy the remaining employees, that all contributions are valued.  Jobs refused because, in many ways, Jobs was an abrasive prick who valued virtually no one’s input or contributions but his own.  In disgust Wozniak leaves the auditorium as he tells Jobs that life isn’t binary.  You can be both a decent human being and a genius at the same time.
That pretty much sums up the frustration I think most Browns fans have with this franchise.  It is only binary.  It’s either one thing or the other but never all it ought to be at the same time.  And until it figures out that it needs to be all it can be at the same time, there really is no meaningful path forward, just more meandering.
The other thing that struck me about Jobs was the fact that the company ultimately became wildly successful despite the toxic culture that emanated from the top.  Jobs was an unrelenting asshole most of the time.  He wasn’t demanding but fair.  He was unreasonably demanding and often unfair.  Undoubtedly that culture had to permeate the organization.  Subordinates do follow the leader.
But the strength of Apple’s products and Jobs’ vision overcame all the cultural headwinds he deliberately inflicted on that company although it’s also fair to note that Apple failed miserably and was on the verge of shutting down because of Jobs as well.  It was only after the products, not only the iMac but more importantly, the iPhone were introduced and literally ushered in one of the single biggest technological advances that the products could overtake whatever toxic culture had otherwise existed.
For the Browns, however, there is literally no chance of a similar change on the horizon.  In the first place, there is absolutely no geniuses anywhere in the organization or otherworldly players whose skills and abilities can transcend an otherwise toxic environment.  There are, however, various shades and colors of fools.  That wouldn’t be so bad if those fools were otherwise functional and creating an environment where the organization could otherwise thrive.  They aren’t and that combination is how you end up with what amounted to a legal mugging in St. Louis on Sunday.
Culture usually matters.  Most companies spend countless hours and dollars on building and maintaining a good corporate culture because in life some things simply don’t change.  The only real way to get a behemoth of any sort moving in the right direction, be it a billion dollar corporation or a NFL team is teamwork.  Every oar has to be moving in rhythm with the other and in the same direction.
Executives get training on leadership and culture.  These are learned skills and they and, perhaps outside of the most recent iteration of Apple, among the most critical to an enterprise’s success.
Jimmy Haslam owns the Browns and perhaps the best you can say about him is that he’s still learning to be an owner.  He hasn’t yet corralled all the things he still doesn’t know.  On any given day and perhaps on most days he discovers something new about the hobby he undertook that spins him in still another direction.
But even as he’s trying to figure this all out, there is considerable question as to whether or not he’s setting the right tone at the top.  In his short tenure as the team’s owner, he’s been impetuous and often knee-jerk in his approach.  He’s already had two of everything and he’s likely to be on his third set of managers very soon.  The legal problems related to his main business still aren’t fully behind him and, ultimately, are his responsibility.  Those dog both him and this team.  Haslam may be able to credibly argue that he neither knew or actively participated in the fraud that enveloped Pilot Flying J, but he cannot credibly argue that there was something about his leadership, about the expectations he laid out and the demands he placed on others that didn’t in whole or part foster a culture where others felt that engaging in the fraud they did was an acceptable means of servicing his demands and expectations.
It’s similar to what happened in New Jersey with Chris Christie and the George Washington Bridge.  He may not have directly told any of his minions to close the toll booths in Fort Lee in order to snarl traffic as punishment to that town’s mayor who wouldn’t endorse him, but he most surely created the culture that gave others the idea to do just that.  Anyone who has spent any time in New Jersey knows that Christie is a vindictive blowhard with significant inadequacy issues.  When he doesn't get his way, he bullies the perceived offender by leveraging his position to delay all sorts of government services.   So when Christie wasn’t getting his way from the Mayor of Fort Lee it wasn’t much of a leap for his top advisors to concoct an inelegant and dangerous scheme in retribution.  Christie may have had plausible deniability on the underlying act but the culture he created is as culpable for what happened as anything else.
In the same way, the University of Louisville is confronting issues of culture when it comes to head basketball coach Rick Pitino.  It’s hard to imagine that Pitino would ever directly approve having an assistant coach essentially run a strip joint out of one of the dorms in order to entice top level recruits to matriculate at Louisville.  It’s just as hard to imagine that he would not have immediately shut it down had he direct knowledge of what was taking place.
And yet Pitino’s continued service with the university should still be in question because the most salient question that has to be answered when it comes to him is whether he fostered a culture that directly contributed to what ultimately did take place.  Did Pitino’s intense desire to secure the best recruits and keep them from arch rival Kentucky so that he could win National Championships give his assistants the kind of green light where they thought that unethical and/or illegal conduct was an appropriate way to achieve those goals?  Time will tell.  That investigation continues.
These are lessons, some very hard, on the same point.  Culture matters and the Browns do not have a winning culture.  You could cite chapter and verse about why that is, particularly when you consider the last decade plus of history.  Wrong hires.  Bad draft choices.  Disaffected owners.  The point remains: every new Browns regime talks a good game about creating a winning culture.  None have had anything resembling the ability to get that done.  It still isn’t.
Haslam can fairly be viewed as a guy running a business where key employees have been definitively found to have played fast and loose with not just the rules but the law.  Ray Farmer, his handpicked general manager, is fairly viewed by those who work for him directly (his staff) and indirectly (the players) as having an ego that far exceeds his accomplishments and as being someone who likewise doesn’t’ mind playing fast and loose with the rules, which led to his suspension.  Then of course he’s also someone who is objectively lousy at his job. Head coach Mike Pettine is a well-intentioned but ultimately raw and inexperienced head coach who is fairly viewed as being completing inept at corralling the team’s most outsized personality, Johnny Manziel.
When you combine that level of dysfunction with a team with the worst culture in the NFL before they arrive and then you sprinkle in the marginal talents on the field, results like Sunday’s inevitable beat down are, well, inevitable.
Haslam will reboot again come season’s end.  He’ll have no choice.  But that reboot will be no more successful than his last two because what he never addresses is what he must address first, culture.  It does matter.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

History Is Not On His Side

At this point it seems like a question of when and not if, as in when will Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam clean house once again?
There is simply  no way a knee-jerk owner like Haslam tolerates regression, right?  Well, that’s probably true.  Still the dilemma he faces is a tad challenging to resolve, assuming you’re willing to give Haslam some credit for not being a total reactionary.
The mental gymnastics Haslam must be going through since watching this supposedly better version of the Browns get embarrassed nearly every week havsto be exhausting.  Haslam can’t like what he sees any more than any fans like what they see.  But the strong evidence tells him and you that the key to long term success in the NFL (and most businesses, actually) is stability, particularly at the top.
So does he stay the course out of the need to create stability within the league’s most unstable franchise or does he once again turn over the apple cart in the name of finding something or someone who can turn it back upright and get it going in the right direction?  With great money comes great responsibility.  The only thing worth gambling on is that whatever decision he makes will be wrong because, Cleveland.
The NFL out of necessity and union rules, treats most players as fungible commodities, a balance that takes into account absolute value, value about or below the potential replacement and salary cap impacts when deciding in any given season which players stay and which go.  Indeed teams turn over 25-30% of their rosters each year. 
The team’s that can perform the evaluation tasks well do so with good management that stays in place from year to year.  The New England Patriots are the gold standard.  The teams that perform those tasks poorly often are unstable franchises who hire poor talent evaluators and mediocre coaches.  The Browns are that gold standard.
While Haslam should prize stability but that only matters when you have the right folks in place at the top.  The Browns don’t and never do.  Let’s look at the last 15 years for the clues.
 Randy Lerner seemed to face a housecleaning dilemma every year and history has more than proven that in every case he actually fostered regression by hanging on to coaches and general managers who clearly were not suited for the job.  His biggest fault was that he couldn’t tell the difference between a Cadillac and a Camry.  As long as he had someone driving him around I guess it didn’t matter.
Since the Browns returned in 1999 only one fired head coach of the Browns went on to be a head coach again.  That would be Romeo Crennel who, incidentally, still has the longest tenure as a Browns head coach in the 2.0 ERA.  Crennel was an awful head coach overseeing typically awful Browns personnel.  He won 6 games his first season, 4 his next.  He should have been fired then as it led to what came next.  Perhaps his major accomplishment was to win 10 games in his third season, which made it look like Lerner was a genius even though the Browns are one of the few teams in NFL history to have won 10 games and not make the playoffs.  More to the point though is that while the NFL is a bottom line league, those 10 wins were soft.  Fans and history will recall that the Browns had a historically easy schedule that entire season, a point that was proven the following season when a Browns team supposedly on the come sank back to Crennel’s set point of 4 wins.  He was fired and instead of being two years into a new regime and direction the Browns were set back by those same two years.
And while Crennel did find a head coaching job again, that shouldn’t alter Haslam’s view.  After getting fired by the Browns Crennel ended up in Kansas City as a defensive coordinator, a job for which he was uniquely qualified and successful.  He became head coach when the Chiefs fired Todd Haley.  Crennel continued into the next season as well, his only full year as a head coach the second time around.  He promptly won 4 games with a Kansas City team many also thought was on the come and was fired. (Indeed that Chiefs team was on the come.  Andy Reid stepped in the next year and promptly won 11 games with essentially the same personnel.)
After that you have Butch Davis who never got another head coaching gig in the NFL but did land in college at North Carolina and was fired as part of the stench of an extensive academic cheating scandal that led to the Browns ultimately drafting Greg Little, but that’s another failed story for another day.
Then there are the various general managers all with the same awful track record and not a one of them hired thereafter as a general manager anywhere else.  That list includes Dwight Clark, Butch Davis (served as his own GM), Phil Savage, George Kokinis (although he was a mere puppet for the subordinate that hired him, Eric Mangini, who also hasn’t worked again as a head coach), Tom Heckert, Mike Lombardi and now Ray Farmer.
The point here is that these aren’t just trends to be interpreted.  The Browns have an unblemished record of hiring awful general managers and head coaches and every time they held on to one or the other longer than they should have it set the franchise back even further.  Crennel is an obvious example but no bigger than Mike Holmgren holding on to Eric Mangini despite the fact that he literally couldn’t stand him.
So as Halsam finds himself on the precipice of having to figure out when housecleaning should commence, the history he need rely on is not that of the wonderfully ethereal concept of stability but that of a franchise he owns that has been 100% wrong for 16 straight years.
I’ve already and repeatedly chronicled general manager Ray Farmer’s shortcomings.  His talent evaluation skills and philosophies are so misguided and inept, the results on the field can fairly be said to be inevitable.  Holding on to him is worse than holding on to Phil Savage and on par with holding on to Dwight Clark.   And yet to place all the blame on Farmer is to ignore Pettine’s massive shortcomings as a head coach. Those, too, are becoming more pronounced as the weeks roll by and here the parallels with Crennel are eerie.
In a sense, the first four games of the season, played against teams of similar caliber, provided a nice experiment where you can control certain variables to determine where the problems really exist. The debacle against the Jets, for example, highlighted the difference a coach can make on a bad team.  The Jets were a mess last season, similar to the Browns.  Yet week one the Jets, without any significant upgrades in personnel, came out well prepared and more than ready to play.  The Browns looked like they had just entered the second week of training camp and were essentially pushed around the field.  The game set a tone for both teams.  You wouldn’t be wrong to note that one of the hallmarks of Crennel’s teams each week were their lack of preparation.  There seemed to be little sense of a game plan or even a general direction.  To lose the number of games Crennel has consistently lost in his head coaching career takes the near perfect convergence of awful talent and coaching.
Switch over to Sunday’s loss to the middling San Diego Chargers.  So much of that loss stems from exactly what Pettine doesn’t bring to this team.  If Pettine is really as hard-nosed as we’ve been told, then his biggest failing comes from not instilling a similar mindset in his team.  That’s not his biggest failing.
As a side note “hard-nosed” is one of those grand football euphemisms, like “blue collar,” that’s supposed to conjure up an image of a team that relies less on smarts and more on brawn and work ethic to get the task of winning accomplished.  It’s a meaningless euphemism.  Less talented teams can and sometimes do succeed by the sheer force of their work ethic and tenacity.  But that’s rarely true in the NFL where personnel is remarkably similar team to team.  Put it this way and maybe exclude Cleveland in this sentence but if players at that level weren’t supremely talented, mentally, physically and emotionally, they would have never made it to the NFL in the first place.
Now what isn’t a euphemism at all and where teams often do reflect their head coach is in discipline and attention to detail.  One of the reasons Crennel took so long to become a head coach and then failed was his inability to bring the necessary attention and detail to the big picture.  Strong-willed miscreants like Braylon Edwards ran all over Crennel and it spilled onto the playing field in the form of one dismal penalty-laden performance after another.  The Browns’ failures in Crennel’s last season can most fairly be said to stem directly from Crennel’s loose grip on the reins of his team.
Pettine’s teams lack the kind of discipline those supposedly connote the hard-nosed team.  In Pettine’s year and a half tenure his teams have ranked near the top in the number of penalties per game, according to the website  This ranking doesn’t even factor in penalties committed, only those accepted by the opposition. 
After 4 games the Browns are averaging nearly 9 penalties a game.   What’s as interesting is that the Browns also have one of the highest ratio of pre-snap penalties to overall penalties in the league under Pettine (and, frankly, basically every other coach before Pettine in the Browns 2.0 era).  That speaks to a revolving door of quarterbacks certainly and differing pre snap cadences.  But it also speaks to a lack of talent as its often overmatched offensive linemen seek to get a jump on their defensive counterparts.
Laying all of this at Pettine’s feet probably isn’t fair.  Much blame goes to the guy who employs him and supplied him with the players, and that would be Farmer. His handiwork was well on display against the Raiders a few weeks back.  That game showed the value of good drafting.  Amari Cooper and Derek Carr were excellent draft picks, particularly when compared to Johnny Manziel and Justin Gilbert.  The Browns could have had either or both and chose neither.  Farmer didn’t like Carr and seemingly hates all receivers.  That’s in essence why the Browns are still the Browns.
Pettine and Farmer are on borrowed time as it is.  Haslam may very well have already decided to clean house and now is just wrestling with whether it should be in season or the day after the season ends. Timing is tricky and keep in mind that midseason replacements kind of feel good for a minute but also tend to piss off season ticket holders who, in Cleveland anyway, like to hold on to the illusion that these games matter at least until the 9th or 10th game of the season.
It’s also possible that Haslam really is wrestling with another kind of dilemma.  He knows that if he holds on to Farmer and Pettine he’ll be trying to defy history that is absolute.  On the other hand, if he respects that history he runs head first into another absolute: he has no chance of getting the next decisions right, either. Ultimately, that’s probably what’s keeping him up most nights, the notion that buying the Browns may have been the dumbest idea he’s had since he set up a bonus program for the sales force at Pilot Flying J.