Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam answers questions during a news conference Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, in Berea, Ohio. Haslam announced Tuesday that CEO Joe Banner will step down in the next two months and general manager Michael Lombardi is leaving the team. Haslam added that president Alec Scheiner will continue to be in charge of the organization's business operations.
It was almost exactly 13 months ago that Ray Farmer, having interviewed for the Cleveland Browns open general manager job, was left waiting in his Cleveland-area hotel room and then the nearby airport for a callback, an answer on whether the job would be his.
We may never know whether Farmer knew the answer then or was holding out real hope. It had long been Joe Banner’s plan to hire Mike Lombardi, his longtime friend who hadn’t worked in the league in five years. When Jimmy Haslam officialy took ownership of the Browns in October 2012, Banner was Haslam’s CEO, a marriage at least partly arranged by the NFL. It was a marriage doomed from the start.
Haslam was a first-time owner, a new guy who – considering the circumstances and the previous guy – almost couldn’t screw up. Banner was the experienced NFL hand, an executive who knew the seat at the top of the board room and how almost all the meetings worked. They came in knowing they’d fire Mike Holmgren, Pat Shurmur and Tom Heckert, and because the bar had been set so low and the team had previously been so bad, they had a clean slate and almost nowhere to go but up.
There was a problem from the start, though. Banner wanted control. Lots of it. He was a business guy in charge of a football team, and he was dead set not only on hiring Lombardi as his top lieutenant but on being involved with everything. Whether the holdup on Farmer last January was a change of heart, hesitation from Haslam or just a bump in the road — a week earlier, the Browns had gone from interviewing Farmer for the GM job to suddenly hiring Rob Chudzinski as head coach — these new Browns didn’t get their first choice of head coaches in Chip Kelly and didn’t ever seem unified on what plans B and C should have been.
In early March somebody or something won out, and Farmer left the Kansas City Chiefs to accept a job as assistant general manager with the Browns. By then a new coaching staff had been built, a new scouting staff was being finalized, and the new Browns were being made whole, a vault full of salary-cap money and a traditionally high draft pick as both selling points and key bonds set to mesh with the new energy in embarking upon another rebuild.
Chudzinski made it 352 days before he was fired by Haslam and Banner. Haslam, Banner, Lombardi and Alec Scheiner, the team president brought on last winter by Banner, spearheaded what Haslam called the "purposefuly methodical" search for a new coach, which ended 25 days after Chudzinski’s firing with the hire of Mike Pettine. That group made it all of 18 days together, and on Tuesday morning Haslam announced that Banner and Lombardi would be fired and Farmer promoted to general manager.
There’s a pattern here. The Browns have long had trouble figuring things out, and if it makes any sense, Haslam might be starting to figure that out. Now, if the Browns can just nail their two first-round picks, Haslam can be cleared of wrongdoing in the FBI investigation of his Pilot/Flying J companies and Farmer and Pettine can be on the same page in March, May, August and November, the Browns might just be able to eventually rejoin the ranks of the NFL living and competing again.
Deep breath, Browns fans. With Farmer in charge, all of that (or at least some of that) has a better chance of happening.
Remember back on the day after Chudzinski was fired when Haslam said this was the start of THE offseason for the Cleveland Browns? Oh, it’s been that — and free agency is still four weeks away.
If you’re keeping score at home, you hopefully have extra pencils and erasers. A year after Banner and Haslam hired both a general manager and a head coach no other teams were interviewing and spent top dollar on coordinators Norv Turner and Ray Horton to help that first-time head coach, the scorecard looks like this: Banner, Lombardi, Chudzinski, Turner, Horton out. Farmer, Pettine, and Scheiner in — for now, anyway. Banner and Lombardi were in on the most recent coaching search and by all accounts Lombardi spent the fall looking at college quarterbacks, but they’re gone now.
Sixteen months into the Haslam Era, it’s basically scorched earth.
It’s not fair to judge a draft for three years or a free-agency haul for two — and it’s less fair in regards to the latter when multiple coaching changes are involved — but it sure looks like the locked-down draft room of Banner, Lombardi, Chudzinski and Farmer last year didn’t exactly help the Browns close the AFC North gap.
Theirs was a draft without sizzle, and it followed a free agent class that lacked major impact. With plenty of money on the cap and 10 draft picks this year, the Browns are well positioned to take a potential leap with better decision making and the coaches eventually making those pieces fit. Some stability would help. Maybe even some patience, too.
Tuesday’s moves were the right ones, even if the curious timing falls in line with others and does little to support Haslam’s notion that the organization is not dysfunctional or radioactive. He disputed those thoughts again on Tuesday while admitting he’s a "work in progress" as an NFL owner.
He sold the fact that Farmer has been in the building working with the scouts, and that should make this latest transition easier. He sung the praises of Lombardi as an evaluator and builder of winning teams and Banner as a key part of all the good decisions the Browns have made in the Haslam Era, but he fired them both on Tuesday. He called it a streamlining, a downsizing, the best thing for the organization.
"I felt like the previous setup was a little bit cumbersome," Haslam said, saying that having Pettine, Farmer and Scheiner in charge of their respective areas and answering to Haslam as "much more efficient, much more clear."
What’s clear is that Banner being in charge of football was not right. A former player who worked as a pro personnel man for the Eagles and Chiefs, Farmer was asked as much about Banner when he was introduced and sidestepped the question like an old pro, saying that Banner "is a football guy. I would classify it as a non-traditional football guy."
Banner did what other Browns bosses in previous regimes and restarts have done. The team headquarters was remodeled. The cafeteria company was replaced. The team’s radio contract was redone. High-dollar hires in areas besides football operations were made.
Rinse, repeat, 4-12.
He shouldn’t have been making football decisions. The same guy sitting at the front of the city hall meetings about scoreboards and stadium renovation funding also sitting in front of the draft meetings is a recipe for disaster.
Whether or not Lombardi was making a bunch of decisions or a few, we won’t know. He was more purposefully hidden than the coaching search was purposefully methodical. Haslam, Banner and Lombardi all took heat for the quick hook Chudzisnki got, then came reports that Kyle Shanahan had clashed with Banner in his offensive coordinator interview over the handling of the Chudzinski situation — reports Pettine had to go out of his way to shoot down when Shanahan was formally introduced last week.
For too long, the unbelievable has been totally believable when it comes to the Browns.
The Browns have long been perceived a disaster, as much as Haslam wants to fight it or claim that the NFL people he talks to don’t see it that way. Up until Monday night, it seems as if he’d been talking to Banner and Lombardi.
"(These moves) made the most sense," Haslam said. "It’s a much simpler organizational structure."
It’s about cleaining up the mess. The perception of dysfunction is and has been real. Even if he didn’t want to admit it Tuesday morning, maybe Haslam finally realized it. Though just about nothing in 16 months under Haslam has gone according to script or any manual, these latest moves are the right ones.
Maybe, eventually, all of this unprecedented and hard to explain change will stop.