Monday, January 04, 2016

The Stopped Clock

Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is the ultimate stopped clock.  He’s right twice a day or at least for one day, which happened to be this past Sunday.
Haslam was right about firing head coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer.  He also was right about organizational structure.  It doesn’t matter if you have the right people all moving in the same direction.  Whether he’s right about much else remains, as usual, the dark cloud hanging over his franchise.

But like a broken clock, Haslam has gotten little else right in his two plus seasons as an owner.  He’s trusted the wrong people, made the wrong assessments.  He expresses supreme confidence in everyone he hires and abandons them quickly when people question his own competence.  He stands in the fire with his charges but only until it starts to get a little hot.  In short and of his own making, Haslam’s franchise is a mess, the biggest mess really in North American professional sports. 

But let’s suspend for the moment the need to pile on all his shortcomings and take a slightly longer view.  In that sense, there is a slight glimmer anyway that perhaps Haslam may ultimately be building a redemption story.  I said slight glimmer.  Don’t turn the pitchforks at me.

Focusing on the things he got right on Sunday night Pettine and Farmer were disasters of the first order.  Pettine was an odd hiring in the first place.  No one in the league thought he was ready to be a head coach, which is why he was not on anyone’s radar screen when Haslam suddenly promoted him from Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator to Cleveland Browns head coach.  Pettine wasn’t even a compromise hire.  He was a last resort hire.  All he did then over the course of two seasons is look stoic and act inexperienced. Haslam got in kind exactly what he hired.

Pettine’s teams may not have ever completely quit on him but neither did they go out of their way to make him look good, either.  Their record isn’t just a reflection on the dearth of talent.  It’s also a reflection on the lack of basic fundamentals and discipline a professional team needs to be competitive.  The Browns couldn’t steal few wins because they were often undone by the kinds of mistakes that plague players and teams without a sense of purpose.  Pettine never instilled any sense of purpose.  I’m not sure he had one himself.

Farmer was just an egocentric jerk with neither the pedigree nor the resume to justify his outsized sense of entitlement.  It wasn’t just that every decision he made turned out poorly.  It was far more that his process for making decisions was so flawed that the results were inevitable.  His arrogance masked a laziness that ultimately will have a far more damaging impact on the franchise then Pettine’s two years could ever have.  Farmer made poor draft decisions because he wouldn’t put the hard work into really determining the kind of players he was drafting.  It would be easy to go chapter and verse on Farmer but suffice it to say that the fact that the Browns’ secondary had virtually no starters and backups available on Sunday and yet Justin Gilbert could not get on the field.  Yes, Gilbert is that bad and the person that picked him is worse.

So again, cutting loose the two people that lost 18 of their last 21 games, the two people that couldn’t mount a running a game or a defense, seems like any easy decision.  Indeed it’s the kind of decisions that makes itself but give Haslam credit at least for not missing the layup.

What concerns fans right now is what else Haslam had to say at the press conference.  Haslam restructured his front office once again, putting the football operations under Sashi Brown but having the new head coach, whoever that may be, report directly to the owner.

It’s a bit of an odd structure, to be sure, but Haslam’s not wrong when he said that structure matters less than people.  Org structures are the kinds of things insecure people cling to in times of stress.  It’s a way to assert authority when respect hasn’t been otherwise rightfully earned.  The Browns’ prior structure is exactly what Farmer asserted as a way of pushing his own agenda instead of finding a way to work more closely with Pettine.

In some ways, the structure Haslam has now established is similar to what many baseball teams are going toward.  In Toronto, for example, Mark Shapiro was hired to run the baseball operations where he’ll have final say over the roster.  It was the reason that Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos left the team after Shapiro was hired.  As general manager pre-Shapiro, Anthepoulos wasn’t just acquiring talent, he had final say over the roster.  Post-Shapiro, Anthepolous had to yield final say on the roster.  In other words, he kept his title but otherwise have suffered a demotion.  He quit instead.

For the Browns, Sashi Brown will serve in the Shapiro role, at least when it comes to forming the roster.  The difference is that the head coach will not report to Brown.  He’ll report directly to Haslam, which is what Bill Belichick has in New England.  Haslam wants to model successful organizations, certainly, but having the new head coach report to him is a concession, really, to what would have otherwise been an entirely intolerable situation for any head coaching candidate of any substance, reporting to someone with literally no experience running the football operations of any team at any level.  With the head coach reporting to Haslam, that coach will have a bigger say in the organization, maybe a bigger say than most rookie coaches deserve, and a direct pipeline to the owner should he need to mediate the inevitable disputes that will arise.

That’s why hiring a head coach first is of no real consequence this time around.  He won’t report to the general manager anyway so it is not the same situation as when Randy Lerner let Eric Mangini hire his own boss.  If the general manager is in charge of talent acquisition and not the entire football operations, it actually makes a modicum of sense to have the head coach assist in his hiring.  It has to be a good fit, philosophically and culturally.

In short, others may have a problem with this structure, I don’t.  Where I do have a problem is trusting its execution to Haslam.  Brown may very well be an undiscovered talent, but why is it that the Browns are the ones that have to always do the experimenting?  Maybe that’s the outcome of a bankrupt franchise, but it needn’t be. No matter how bad things are in Cleveland, there's still only 32 NFL jobs and far more applicants than openings. This is a franchise deeply in trouble and it’s probably the exact wrong time to be taking a flyer on someone without a track record of any kind.  And what is it about Haslam that gives anyone any confidence that his assessment of Brown is correct?  Haslam hasn’t made an assessment on the football side of his business that was even in the same zip code as correct.  But Haslam did, once again, express his supreme confidence in Brown, just like he did in Farmer.  So there is that.

You also have to be just as nervous that Haslam has put himself front and center of the search committee for the new head coach.  The structure he created leaves him no other choice.  At some point you'd like to think Haslam has enough self awareness to question his own ability to get this decision right.  But self awareness is in short supply in Berea.  It's how things end up this way. Too bad the Browns aren’t a publicly traded stock.  The smart money would be shorting it all day long.

The Browns imploding and rebooting every two years used to be as predictable as the swallows returning to Capistrano every February.  But then a funny thing happened.  Some of the locals there, in their quest to improve the experience, created an inhospitable environment for the swallows and they stopped returning.  Now they're scrambling to get them back in much the same way as Haslam will have to scramble to reclaim the fans he's lost every time he's tried to improve the experience.  He's on the verge of improving it out of existence.

Every NFL owner has a built in constituency willing to suffer any level of abuse but it would be folly for Haslam to conclude that his actions and those of his predecessors haven’t done significant and in some cases irreversible damage.  Since the Browns left, an entire generation of fans have been lost, not having known anything close to resembling a competent, let alone a winning franchise.  The previous generations have been completely alienated.  Haslam can talk about working hard to get things right but all the fans keep getting are the toxic fumes of another tire fire being set by a franchise with a seemingly unending supply  of waste materials and no shortage of fuel or matches.  What doesn’t kill you may make you stronger but it doesn’t make you more engaged.  Haslam’s short tenure has continued the most disturbing trend of all.  In droves, what fans that remain have replaced their passion with their indifference, whether its about the results on the field or the latest travails of Johnny Disaster.  And that’s the worst indictment of all.

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