Monday, December 21, 2015

The Bottomless Pit


I’ve been writing about the Cleveland Browns on this little blog and elsewhere for 9 years, 9 miserable friggin’ years.  To understand the misery, the pride swallowing siege that it’s been, when I started the Browns had already been back from NFL-mandated purgatory for 7 years.  In those first 7 seasons of Browns 2.0, the team had one winning record and one playoff appearance.  Both came under the weird tenure of Butch Davis.  In retrospect, those were the good time.
During those first 7 years, there were only two head coaches for the Browns and two owner.  In context, that’s not too shabby, the key word being context.
Since then, the Browns have been in a free fall without end.  Alcoholics and drug addicts hit rock bottom.  The Browns never do.  There is no bottom, rock or otherwise.  When you think the franchise can’t get worse, it does, spectacularly so in fact.  The Browns haven’t been content being the worst franchise in pro football.  They’ve taken it to the next level, which is the worst franchise in North American sports.  Only a lack of knowledge on the intricacies of the various European soccer leagues and southern hemisphere winter baseball prevents me from saying it’s the worst franchise in the entire world.  I do suspect that’s true, however and if it’s not they are in the top 3.
In the last 9 years the Browns have had 6 head coaches, 10 offensive coordinators, 11 different quarterbacks (but far more that have actually started a game) and a third owner. The team has had a losing record, a deeply losing record, in all but one year.  In a 16 game season, the Browns typically win about 25% of their games, which translates to about 4 or 5 a year.  They won 10 games once.  As befits everything else about this team, naturally a 10-win season it wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs even though in almost any other season it would probably get them a bye.  When it comes to the Browns, nothing is ever good enough or even close to good enough or even in the same stratosphere of good enough.
My point here is to not recount a history you already understand.  It’s to let you know that I know what you know and to let you know that when I say that despite how bad the last 9 years have been, this season is truly the worst in every measurable and emotional way, it’s not hyperbole, just fact.
I can’t tell if Jimmy Haslam is the worst owner ever, the dumbest owner ever or just the most na├»ve owner ever.  But he is something and at this point the label doesn’t matter.  He’s overseeing such a spectacularly inept enterprise that he bares just as much responsibility for the mess as the two fools who came before him, Al and Randy Lerner, separately or together, it doesn’t matter.
We live in an era of instant gratification, maybe we always have.  As fans we see incompetence and we demand that heads roll because we want the satisfaction of knowing that somebody who has so violated our trust, our patience and our loyalty hasn’t just been taken out to the woodshed and spanked, hard.  We want to know that those responsible are forever extricated from our lives, never to be seen or heard from again, except on the sidelines of our worst enemies, like Michigan.  It’s the only way we get closure, the only way we get a measure of accomplishment from a leisure pursuit that has been tortuous to us.
In that vein, it’s rather remarkable that Haslam continues to hold on to anyone in his front office, even with but a few weeks remaining.  Head coach Mike Pettine is earnest in approach but overwhelmed by the task in front of him. Every week in every way imaginable he puts it all on display.  The team never seems to have any sort of game plan on either offense or defense.  Pettine never offers an adjustment to the circumstances in front of him.  His teams are undisciplined and lack focus.  He can’t even manage the clock or figure out when to call a time out.  He’s not instilled any sense of culture or ownership within the players he controls.  They play a lifeless brand of scattered football, emotionless and generic.  In every way possible or imaginable, the team reflects the stoic incompetence of the man in charge each Sunday.
Now some argue that Pettine can only do so much with what Ray Farmer, the general manager gives him.  True enough.  It’s hard to have a game plan on either side of the ball when you know before the first scheme crosses your mind you don’t have the players that could execute it with any sort of precision, let alone competence, let alone consistency  Pettine is hamstrung in ways that are hard to fathom, no doubt.
Yet the truly gifted coaches still find a way to make occasional chicken salad out of the chicken shit they’ve been handed and maybe that’s the best you can say about last Sunday’s victory over a team and franchise in just as bad shape, the San Francisco 49ers.  But ask yourself this:  can you name one instance where Pettine demonstrated in any measurable way an ability to overcome his circumstances?  You can’t because there isn’t one.  Here’s another way to think about it.  If the Browns were to play New England this weekend and the NFL required that Pettine and Bill Belichick switch jobs that week, by the game on Sunday the Belichick-coached Browns would be favored over the Pettine-coached Patriots, mainly because Pettine would find a way to take the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands.
Pettine doesn’t need to be Belichick to be successful.  But he needs to be better than he is.  Two years, in this context, is enough time to conclude that for whatever value stability has its pursuit in this case would just be another fool’s errand.  If Pettine remains it just delays the ability to try once again to stem the depth of its constant fall.
Now the other side of that coin is that Pettine is the devil you know.  His abilities clearly match those of the talentless boobs that surround him.  And if he leaves, do you really trust Haslam with the next selection?  That is the crux of the matter, isn’t it?  Whatever else you think of Haslam he’s more than proven to be an incredibly inept decision maker.
As for Farmer, he’s actually more incompetent than Pettine and the comparison isn’t hardly even fair.  If Pettine is measured only in the context of the idiots that surround him in Berea then of course he should keep his job.  But that is hardly the measure stick.  Simply because Farmer is the worst general manager in the history of general managers isn’t the way to judge Pettine.  It’s the way to judge Farmer.  Fire Farmer now.  The team showed that it could live without him for 4 games.  Hell, one of their three wins came when Farmer was on suspension and another win came the week he returned, meaning he didn’t have time to muck up anything.  Since he’s really been back the team has won only once. It’s not a coincidence.
I’ve already detailed chapter and verse in the past as to what makes Farmer so bad at his job.  He’s blown every first round pick he’s been given.  He’s signed no meaningful free agents but did squander valuable cash and cap space on Dwayne Bowe, the worst free agent acquisition since Andre Rison.  Actually that’s unfair to Rison.  In his one year in Cleveland Rison played in all 16 games and had 47 receptions. His production didn’t match what the team paid and they acquired him when they had no money to pay him.  But he did produce, relatively speaking. Bowe is so bad on a team with but one legitimate receiver and still can’t crack the game day roster, let alone the starting roster.  There’s been almost zero production.  If you really think about it, Bowe is the poster child for the entire franchise.  Lots of money invested, nothing to show for it.
But the book on Farmer is so much more.  He’s arrogant to a fault.  The willful disregard for the rules on texting is one thing.  More damning though is his almost obstinate refusal to attend pro days last year for many of the top prospects. Farmer treated it as an activity beneath his pay grade, I guess.  As a result Farmer lost the opportunity, on purpose, to offer to his employer the main skill he’s being paid to exercise—his informed and considered opinion.
Almost everyone else in the world outside of Farmer and Jerry Jones, apparently, saw the hot mess that was Johnny Manziel.  The guy just didn’t send up red flags from time to time.  He waved around fistfuls at almost every hour of every day.  And yet Farmer ignored every warning sign anyway.  The same is true for Justin Gilbert.  How Farmer could not have known that Gilbert lacked even the most basic of work ethics is beyond me, but then again he missed the same thing on Bowe so there is that.  Cameron Erving and Danny Shelton, this year’s Manziel and Gilbert, are very average talents at best.  Erving has been benched on a team that’s won only three games, one in which he didn’t even play.  Indeed against Seattle, Erving saw the field only out of necessity.  The Browns could have played with one less linemen and left Erving on the bench and the result would have been no different.  As for Shelton, he’s run over so often by opposing centers and guards you’d think he was auditioning for the Wile E. Coyote role in the live action version of The Road Runner cartoon series.
In other words, it’s not just that Farmer is bad at drafting.  He’s lazy and arrogant and a significant contributor to the awful culture deeply imbedded within the walls of Berea.  He’s neither a winner nor understands what it even means to be a winner or to build a winning culture.  There’s nothing about Farmer’s performance, not one hint that suggest he could possibly be part of the long term answer in turning the franchise around.  Cutting that cord now would be the best possible message to the franchise.  Keeping him one minute longer only exacerbates Haslam’s tenuous control over the franchise.
The ultimate problem with this franchise, and this falls back to where this all started, is the owner.  No one publicly understands what Haslam stands for and I’ve heard no one inside Berea who could articulate Haslam’s specific vision either, outside of amorphous concepts of building a winner and valuing stability.  Well, Haslam’s done neither in his short tenure and yet there’s no reason to suggest that valuing stability at this juncture will lead to building a winner. 
None of that means that Haslam needs to sell the team.  Maybe he can rebuild the trust he never fully got anyway.  To do that though he needs to get the hell out of the way.  He needs to find a respected franchise guru, someone who knows how to build a structure and a culture.  That isn’t going to come easy.
The intriguing aspect of the ridiculous rumor about Urban Meyer coming to the Browns was the type of package that was supposedly on the table.  It included not just a huge salary but a piece of the ownership pie.  Meyer isn’t coming to Cleveland under any circumstances.  But the kind of package he would garner is exactly what it would take to get someone as credible as Meyer to come to town.
Randy Lerner thought he had that in Mike Holmgren.  The thought made sense except Holmgren was simply the wrong guy.  His football knowledge was top notch but his commitment to the team was middling, at best.  He never fully relocated to Cleveland, spending most of his time either in Seattle or Arizona, neither of which were conducive to building a team in Cleveland.  Holmgren also lacked the brutal honestly of an architect like Belichick, which is why Holmgren kept Eric Mangini a year longer than he deserved and then filled the breach with the son of a friend in Pat Shurmur.
I don’t know who is out there to take on this kind of reclamation project and I’m not sure Haslam has the wherewithal to come up with the right package to get him anyway.  I guess what I’m saying is that it easily could be at least another 9 years of abject frustration and if I’m still writing about them then, have me committed.  Better yet, just drop me a card at whatever institution I’m a resident as I would have likely voluntarily committed myself well before then.