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.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Rock Bottom, Again

It’s both hard to imagine but yet easy to reconcile that the Cleveland Browns, already at the bottom of the NFL’s pecking order of desirable franchises, has actually found a way to get even lower.  If this isn’t rock bottom then it better get here soon because that sucking sound being heard all over Northeast Ohio are Browns fans in a collective gasp over  the disaster that is their team of choice.
You know that show “Hoarders” where a borderline mentally ill individual can’t seem to navigate a clear path from kitchen to bathroom because of the accumulated clutter of years of neglect?  The Browns’ house is far worse.  Short of a league intervention, in the way a professional helps the hoarder, the Browns franchise is in real danger of suffocating to death among the piles of mess it’s created and can’t clean.
It’s enough to make you wonder what Jimmy Haslam really sees when he takes a look at the asset he’s devalued as he makes fans actually long for the relative salad days of Randy Lerner’s reign of ineptness.
In just the last week we’ve learned that it’s probably time to remove the word “functional” in front of the word “alcoholic” when it comes to describing quarterback Johnny Manziel.  We’ve learned that Josh Gordon indeed will be suspended for at least a year from the NFL.  And we’ve just learned that general manager Ray Farmer is likely about to get the team sanctioned and himself punished by the NFL for texting his grandiose thoughts on play calling to the coaching staff during games.  This latest just confirms that when it comes to personnel decisions Haslam has about the worst instincts possible.
Seriously, can it get any worse?  The sad truth is that indeed it can get worse.  Just because things are both bad and ridiculous now doesn’t mean that Haslam and his front office staff can’t find a way to make it even worse.  In his short time as the owner Haslam has made each offseason more disruptive than the previous.  With the mess the team is now in how exactly can it even hope to better its 7 win total of last season with a quarterback situation as big a mess as it’s ever been, and that just for starters?
You can say that the flameout of Manziel was expected, at least by anyone actually paying attention, so the only surprising thing when it comes to him is how quickly he devolved into a player needing inpatient rehab treatment.  And before we bestow bouquets upon his breast for the supposedly brave decision to volunteer to seek treatment, let’s remember all the problems he caused, all the red flags he ignored, all the enabling done by the front office and the coaching staff to dress this pig up as a rose.  Manziel was out of control long before he came to Cleveland.  His personal revelation, with his career certainly hanging in the balance, isn’t a stroke of bravery to be admired.  It is what it is, the last rope being grabbed by a desperate man finally realizing he’s drowning in a cesspool of his own creation.
You can say similar things about a nearly unrepentant jackass like Gordon, too.  His open letter to his critics was a passive-aggressive attempt in which he appeared to take responsibility for problems while offloading them to his own immaturity and rough upbringing.  It was what it was, a last ditch attempt to win back the fans who rightfully have turned their backs on him as he set fire to his career because of a raging ego unchecked by the prior punishments he endured.
But when it comes to Farmer, it is a little surprising I guess to find out that he’s mostly an intervening and insufferable prick afflicted by the seemingly contradictory maladies of delusions of grandeur and fears of inadequacy and incompetence.  You don’t have to be a big Kyle Shanahan fan to at least empathize with his need to exit Cleveland the moment the clock read 00:00 in the season’s final, miserable game.  Shanahan knew, unlike most of the coaching staff, that he had other more viable alternatives than wallowing in Cleveland’s mess any longer.  Why should he, why would he, endure that kind of behavior from the general manager during games, let alone between them?
Don’t forget, the hierarchy that Haslam created had the coaching staff, via head coach Mike Pettine, reporting directly to the owner, not the general manager.  Having created the structure it was up to Haslam to enforce it.  Instead he let problems develop and metastasize to the point where the franchise is once again on the precipice of completing falling apart.
If CBSSports’ Jason Canfora’s report is to be believed, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t, Farmer is far from the only problem child.  Alec Scheiner, the team president, is proving to be just as difficult to the point that despite operating solely on the business side he’s forced Pettine to sit with him and watch game film at 6 a.m. each Monday morning of the season. 
Scheiner, like Farmer, is supposed to be at the same level as Pettine yet in practice Pettine is the red-headed step child of a previous marriage.  That’s what comes with taking a job that no one else wanted or would otherwise touch without more millions that even Haslam could afford.  Pettine was desperate to become a head coach and it’s as if Scheiner and Farmer are relishing every opportunity to rub his nose in it.
Given this context, it’s actually hard now to muster much respect for Pettine.  He either lacks the wherewithal or the desire to compete with the sharp elbows of his counterparts on the business or player acquisition sides.  The result?  It lowers his stature in everyone’s eyes, including the players.  Put it this way, the players knew Manziel was both unprepared and too overmatched to actually start a game this season, let alone a game where the playoffs were theoretically on the line.  The players knew that Pettine knew it as well.  But when Pettine didn’t stand up to Farmer and/or Haslam and refuse to start Manziel, whatever respect there was for him in the locker room had to drop by half, or more.  It’s not just that  you can’t imagine Bill Belichick ever getting himself in that situation, it’s that you can’t imagine even Pat Shurmur getting in that kind of bind.
Indeed, I’d have more respect now for Pettine if he had just quit after one dysfunctional season, like Shanahan.  And I’d have more respect for Haslam if instead of keeping the circus intact and letting Shanahan go would have instead say goodbye to Pettine and installed Shanahan as the head coach.  That would have shown real vision on Haslam’s part not to mention a willingness to actually listen to the people running the games on a weekly basis.
What this team needs right now is exactly what they lost in Shanahan, someone willing to set ablaze his relationship with the owner in the name of doing what’s right instead of what’s expedient.  Instead fans are left with a team led by an owner all too willing to let his direct reports push each other around like kids on a playground as if the path to success is to be paved by whoever survives as the biggest bully.
Short of an indictment, which would have come by now if it was coming at all, Haslam isn’t selling this team.  That doesn’t bode well for as far as the eye of the Browns fan can see or his mind can dream.  Haslam wasted several days a few weeks ago by taking a retreat with his front office to figure out what went wrong.  He doesn’t need a retreat.  He needs some of that faux courage that his favorite son Manziel exercised, recognize that rock bottom has been reach and raise his hand and ask for some real help from the league.  It’s very clear at this point that Haslam can’t fix this mess by himself.