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.

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