It’s Sunday of the Cleveland Browns merciful bye week. The team, the players, the coaches, the owner and the fans welcome the break like Nordstom’s welcomes a bored housewife with a clutch full of credit cards. But there’s still activity inside Berea. There’s always activity in side Berea. Let’s take a look:
Int. Head coach Mike Pettine’s office. A desk, almost completely uncluttered except for an opened iPad, is centered in the room. There are no pictures of his kids or wife. The only picture in the entire office sits on an unused credenza. It’s an autographed picture from Denis O’Leary who played the head coach of the Browns in the movie “Draft Day.” It’s enscribed: “Here’s hoping Brian Hoyer is your Brian Drew.” The desk chair is pushed in as if it hadn’t been sat in for days, maybe weeks, maybe ever. The walls have no permanent reminders or mementos of its current resident. There are however boxes filled with various personal items from other stops Pettine has made along the way. One box has a Buffalo Bills wool ski cap hanging half way out. As the camera pans out, we see Pettine standing stoically looking out the lone window of his office onto the empty practice fields in the distance. He is wearing sunglasses and a mid-weight jacket with the word “Browns” over the left breast. His hands are in the jackets pockets. He’s also wearing a headset though it doesn’t appear to be connected to anything. The plug end trails behind him. Pettine doesn’t move for what seems to be several minutes.
Ray Farmer, general manager, enters. He’s wearing a tight, overly tight actually, Browns sweatshirt as if the point is to accentuate the biceps he cultivated during a mostly pedestrian career as an itinerant professional football player. He’s sweating profusely and carrying a water bottle. He’s wearing slacks, belying the impression that he just came back from a workout. He’s a man in a hurry but painfully unsure of where he’s supposed to be next.
Farmer: Hey, Pett, what’s up? Got a minute?
Pettine: The usual Ray. Just working hard. Trying to get some of our mistakes cleaned up. Penalties. Execution. That kind of thing. Just need to get it all cleaned up. Working hard to get a W. I’m pressed for time. What do you need?
Farmer: Not for nothing, Pett, but honestly it just looks like you’re staring out the window. It doesn’t look like you’ve touched anything on your desk in weeks. Do you even know how to turn on that iPad? It has the playbook and game films right on it. You just touch the Browns app and it’s all there.
Pettine: I’m the head coach, Ray. My job isn’t to be an electronics wiz. It’s to be stoic and that’s what I am, stoic. No panic. Just keep working hard, getting things cleaned up.
Farmer: Ok. Right. Whatever. Anyway, that’s not why I stopped by. I want to run an idea by you.
Pettine: Just a second. (Pettine continues staring out the window for several minutes. He doesn’t appear to move a muscle. Farmer, continuing to sweat as if he were wearing a parka on a 100 degree day, takes swig after swig from his water bottle as he watches Pettine.)
Pettine: Did you say something, Ray?
Farmer: Uh, yea. I want to run an idea by you. I’m thinking of making a few trades, thought I’d run them by you, not for sign-off of course. I’m the decider here. I have control over the roster. But getting your opinion on something makes it look like we work together all the time. You know, just like the Justin Gilbert pick.
Pettine: Hasn’t the trade deadline passed?
Farmer: There’s a deadline? Damn. Is that written anywhere? You got some kind of memo on that?
(Pettine continues staring out the window. Farmer continues drinking water, occasionally wiping his bald head with a handkerchief he pulls from his back pocket. As Farmer ponders his response owner Jimmy Haslam walks in. He’s wearing an expensive brown suit, white shirt with orange and brown tie. He’s drinking coffee from a Pilot Flying J mug.)
Haslam: Guys, glad you’re both in here. I wanted to talk with you both.
Farmer: What’s up, boss? I can still call you boss, right?
Haslam: Ray, I said no changes during the bye week. No changes means no changes. (Farmer looks visibly relieved though sweat continues to pour down him as if he were standing in a Miami rainshower in mid July. Pettine remains stoic as he continues to stare, apparently aimlessly, out the window onto the practice fields.) Look, I think we need to talk. The media is all over us. The fans are all over us. We haven’t won a game in months. In every conceivable way we’re regressing just from last year and let’s face it, last year wasn’t exactly my definition of success.
Farmer: That’s an interesting point, boss. How do you define success? See, the reason I ask is that everyone has different definitions of success. For me, growing up as I did, poor neighborhood, drug dealers on the corner, that kind of thing, I probably define success differently than you, coming from the nice background you came from and all. I’m a pretty big deal in my neighborhood. I have a nice house, nice car. In my neighborhood, the guys I grew up with, they’d say I’m successful. But I’m open to the idea that I may be defining it differently than you, see, that’s my point. How are we defining success here?
Haslam: Well, let’s see, Ray. This is professional football. We exist in a league made up of other teams just like us. We play 16 games against other teams in this league. You either win those games or you lose them. And then you tally up the wins and the losses and you compare that to those other teams. The teams with more wins go the playoffs where they play each other to eventually figure out the championship. Those teams are what we define as successful, Ray. We need to be one of those teams with more wins than losses. One of those teams that goes to the playoffs and maybe the championship.
Farmer: I see where you’re going with that, boss. That makes sense to me. Glad we’re on the same page now. So if that’s it then I’ve got to be heading back to my office. It’s bye week. It gives me a chance to tweak my fantasy football rosters. I’m in 4 leagues and frankly I’m not doing very well in any of them at the moment.
Haslam: Not so fast, Ray. The three of us need to talk, collectively, about how we fix this, what we’re going to do differently in order to be successful in this league.
Farmer: That’s fine by me, boss. I got some time before lunch. Whatever you want to do. But remember, you’re the one that no changes, so now I’m a little confused because it sounds like you’re looking for changes.
Haslam: When I said “no changes” I meant I wasn’t going to fire you or Pett. Not now anyway. That’s what I meant by no changes. (Farmer again looks visibly relieved as he wipes even more sweat from his balding head. Pettine continues to look off into the distance, unfazed by anything he’s just heard. It’s not even clear he’s heard anything at all.) (Seeing the relived Farmer) I said right now. But unless we figure out how to get better players here, through the draft, through free agency, and unless we figure out how to better coach those players, I won’t be able to resist. I’ll make changes faster than I change the bonus programs at Pilot Flying J. We’re failing as a franchise. Right now the only guy on the team anyone cares about is the left tackle and you wanted to trade him.
Farmer: Well, I understand your thinking on that, boss, about Joe Thomas I mean. But hear me out. I was reading on some stats web site how left tackles aren’t as valuable as they once were so I figured maybe some of the other GMs in the league hadn’t read that web site yet and maybe were still thinking, you know old fashioned like, that you need a good left tackle to protect your quarterback in what’s become a predominately pass league and I could trick them into giving us a couple or three number 1 picks for Thomas. According to our media guide Joe Thomas makes the Pro Bowl, like a lot. So if I could get 3 number 1 picks for him, that would really set us up for the future.
Haslam: (Exasperated and shaking his head). This is going to be harder than I thought. Ray, we’ve blown the last 4 number one picks. What’s your plan for drafting better players? I mean just look at this damn roster. Danny Shelton, Cameron Erving, Justin Gilbert, Johnny Manziel. You want to go back further? How about Barkevious Mingo? How about Trent Richardson? That’s six straight picks and every one has been a dud, one way or the other.
Farmer: You can’t pin Richardson on me.
Haslam: Ray, I’m just talking about trends here. We have no foundation on this team and we aren’t going to get one if we can’t even get players in the first round who get on the field. Gilbert hasn’t played meaningful snaps since he was a senior at Alabama. Manziel is a party boy who already is back drinking again. Shelton and Erving at least start, but it’s not like those units are better for it. In fact, they’re worse.
Farmer: I’m not sure I’m getting your point here, boss. You know the culture I’m trying to get instilled here, the one where only the best players play each week? If those guys you mentioned can’t get on the field or their duty is limited then they aren’t the best players. The guys beating them out are better. See how that works? It’s logic. It’s the way it should be and I’m proud of instilling that culture.
(Pettine doesn’t flinch)
Haslam: But aren’t those four or five players, drafted number one as they were, supposed to beat out the other players on the team? Isn’t that why we draft them number one? Aren’t they supposed to be no-brainer selections, guys who will be starting for years?
Farmer: I mean, if you want to look at it like that, I guess you could. But it doesn’t always work out that way. I just think the best players should play each week, doesn’t matter if they were number one picks or undrafted guys we signed. Everyone develops at a different rate. Sometimes an undrafted free agent adapts more quickly than a number one pick. That kind of thing’s just going to happen.
Haslam: It doesn’t happen that way in New England. It doesn’t happen that way in Pittsburgh. The only place that seems to happen every year is Cleveland. Ray, you do understand your job, right?
Farmer: Of course, boss. And thanks for sticking with me like this. I don’t know what kind of culture they got going on in New England or Pittsburgh. They do seem to win, though, so maybe their best guys are winning the battles during the week. Just like we’re trying to do. I’ll keep drafting guys and Pett will play the guys he thinks are best. It’s a long process. Progress, slow and steady. We’re on our way. I really believe that.
Haslam: Ray, are you insane? You do know that we’re regressing, don’t you? And we weren’t very good to begin with. I want to hear your specific plan on how you’re going to start utilizing the number one draft picks we keep earning to actually find players that can get on the field.
Farmer: I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. The best players are getting on the field. That’s the culture I’ve instilled with Pett.
Haslam: The hell with the culture. We need better players, lots more of them. Jesus Christ, Ray, you signed Dwayne Bowe to a multi-million dollar contract and he can’t get on the field. Do we really want to walk down that road we want to get this fixed?
Farmer: I think it’s on the coaches to coach up Justin and Dwayne. That’s on them, not that I’m trying to blame anyone. I think Pett’s doing a helluva job with the players he’s got. But like I was saying, it’s not on me that Gilbert can’t get on the field. He’s obviously not one of the best guys. That’s the way these things go.
(Pettine pulls back the right ear phone as he begins to listen. Still stoic, he offers up some quick observations)
Pettine: Justin needs to trust his technique better. He had some sloppy habits he developed in college and we’re trying to break him of them. He’s been good in the meeting room, though. He’s trying. We just got to get him consistent. (Pettine then puts the right ear phone back into place and resumes staring out the window, as stoic as ever.)
Haslam: Something’s missing. We aren’t doing a good job of evaluating players and we aren’t doing a good job of coaching up the guys we have. (Pettine raises his left eyebrow as his right one lowers, as if he’s skeptical of what he just heard. Nonetheless he continues to look out the window, stoically.) We need to look at all that and we will and by “we” I mean my wife and me and maybe Alec, not sure yet on that. But right now I’m trying to figure out how we’re making decisions around here. Every other team, even the Oakland Raiders for Christ’s sake, seem to be getting better. Maybe we should have drafted David Carr. We need to look at the process because I’m not even sure we have one at this point and if we do it’s more broken than my reputation with the trucking community. We’re defying the odds. (Haslam takes a swig from his coffee cup and purses his lips suggesting that there’s something other than coffee inside)
Farmer: That can be a good thing, defying the odds. It shows that we’re outside the box. Now it’s just a matter of getting outside the box on the right thing. That’s another piece of the culture I’m trying to instill, you know what I mean?
Haslam: What about you, Pett? Pett? Pett? (Pettine continues looking out the window. Haslam taps him on the shoulder to get his attention). Pett?
Pettine: What’s up, Jimmy?
Haslam: Haven’t you been listening at all? I’m here to talk about how we get better week. Are you even listening?
Pettine: I think we all know that Rome wasn’t built in a day, that nothing good comes easy, and it’s a marathon, you know, not a sprint.
Haslam: How come we can’t get Gilbert on the field? Why did we start an injured Josh McCown instead of evaluating Manziel when it was clear the season was already lost? How come Shelton never seems to make a tackle? Why does all the pressure seem to come through Erving’s gap? And why do we have almost as many penalty yards this season as rushing yards?
Pettine: (still looking out the window, intently): We’re just trying to win games here, playing the guys we think give us the best chance to win each week. As I said, Justin needs to just trust his technique. Johnny’s working hard. He’s good in the quarterback room. Much more alert than last season. Shelt’s coming along but the transition from college is tough, like Justin’s. Erving is working hard, we work with him every day.
Haslam: Not my question. How are we going to get better as a team, as a franchise? How are we going to be successful and so that I’m clear on this point, a team that actually wins more than it loses, let’s start there.
Pettine: We’re just going to keep working at it, cleaning things up. Those penalties are frustrating and we just got to get that cleaned up.
Haslam: So are you saying we have the right players here?
Pettine: Jimmy, that’s not my job to say. Ray’s got final say over the 40 man roster. I was just happy to get this job. It’s not my place to push boundaries here. I’m just happy to have the job.
Haslam: (Clearly talking to himself at this point) This isn’t getting me anywhere. Maybe I just need to get this management group restructured again, maybe rejigger the uniforms again. I’m thinking brown helmets, maybe a logo. I wonder if Alec’s in his office. (Haslam exits, head bowed. Tears in his eyes, his face expressing the kind of frustration and realization that comes with having squandered a multi-million dollar investment.)
Farmer: (to Pettine, who remains staring out the window, earphones over both ears.) Well, that was weird. Nice guy, that Jimmy, but doesn’t seem to know much about football, that’s for sure. Don’t you agree, Pett? (Pettine says nothing, the expression on his face as determined and blank as ever.)Fade out. Again.