Can the Cleveland Browns’ long-term rebuild actually succeed?
Each week during this 0-10 season, Hue Jackson has received a text message from Jim Haslam, the father of the man who owns the Cleveland Browns. The elder Haslam is 85 years old and lives in Knoxville, Tenn., but he’s taken the occasion of each week’s loss to reassure the head coach who was hired by his son to lead this team.
Hang in there.
This is tough.
There are better days ahead.
Jackson saves these messages on his phone, along with those sent by team owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam. “I keep them,” Jackson says, “because when it is dark, I can open my phone and go find them.”
This season has tested Jackson, a man so optimistic that he has steadfastly refused to use the word rebuild since he was hired in January. That’s unmistakably what this season is—a teardown, in the hopes of building a solid structure from the ground up. But even by Browns’ standards, a franchise that is on its ninth head coach since returning to the NFL in 1999, the extent of this makeover is staggering.
“I have never seen anything even close to this,” says left tackle Joe Thomas, whose 10 seasons in Cleveland make him the longest-tenured Brown. “It is probably one of the most extreme rebuilds in NFL history.”
The Browns began the 2016 season with 17 rookies on their 53-man roster, the highest of any team since the 2002 Ravens (Baltimore finished 7-9 that year). Going into Week 11, the Browns now have 19 rookies who comprise more than one-third of their roster; the 29 players with two or fewer seasons of experience make up more than half their roster. And many of these young players are playing significant roles. Twelve rookies have made a total of 46 starts this season, including seven by QB Cody Kessler; all told, Browns rookies have amassed more than 3,000 snaps of playing time.
Consider this admission by Sashi Brown, the executive VP of football operations, that registers as either stunning or painfully self-aware: “We are not focused on wins and losses this year.”
The narrative around the Browns is one of morbid curiosity: Will they win a game or will they earn the dubious distinction of joining the 2008 Lions as the only 0-16 teams in NFL history? A more important question looms, however. Can this rebuild actually succeed?
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Talk about The Plan flows freely out of the Browns’ home on Lou Groza Boulevard. Sashi Brown and Hue Jackson avow firmly that the organization is committed to the long-term view from ownership on down, even as it has reaped no early returns in the win column. “We are not going to blink,” Brown says. “No one is panicked here.”
The Plan was implemented following the Browns’ 3-13 finish in 2015. It was their eighth straight losing season, and an accumulation of draft misses had eroded the talent on the roster. Instead of getting stuck in the “cyclical monotony” of chasing “fleeting mediocrity” through free agency, as Brown put it, they decided to start anew. In other words, the Browns opted for a total demolition instead of installing new countertops or painting the cabinets.
Jackson, known for getting the most out of the players he’s coached no matter the position, was last offseason’s big acquisition. The team also promoted Brown from general counsel and hired former baseball exec Paul DePodesta as chief strategy officer. The front office went all in on building through the draft while letting four starters—right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, center Alex Mack, receiver Travis Benjamin and safety Tashaun Gipson—walk in free agency. The team put a premium on draft capital, trading the No. 2 overall pick and turning it into a haul of current and future picks, including an extra first-rounder in 2017 and extra second-rounders in ’17 and ’18. The way forward was clear: The new regime was going to pick its own players and build from the ground up.
It’s unwise to evaluate a draft even as recently as a year out. But the early-season success of quarterback Carson Wentz, taken by Philadelphia in the No. 2 spot that the Browns traded away, did not earn any credibility points for an organization that is perennially searching for a QB—they’ve cycled through 26 starters since 1999, and three this season—nor did it quiet the anti-analytics crowd. Plus, some of the young ascending players the Browns let go in favor of handpicking their own core, have been thriving in other cities. Taylor Gabriel, for example, was released by the Browns during final cuts and claimed by the Falcons, who have used him as a valuable speed receiver to alleviate some safety attention on Julio Jones.
“We always look back on our decisions,” Brown says, when asked about passing on Wentz. “You try to be as thorough as possible going in, and as humble as possible coming out. Are there things we could have, and should have, done differently? That said, we really like the decision we made. I think it’s dangerous to start evaluating decisions once you have information you didn’t have going into them. And our trade, really, hasn’t even borne all its fruits.”
In other words: Wentz is doing well, but give The Plan a chance. Asking for trust and patience from a fan base that has been fooled so many times is a tough proposition. So is changing the culture among a team with 19 rookies who have yet to experience a winning locker room on a Sunday afternoon. Jackson worries about the impact of the losing on the young players. He says he’s talked about that with his top lieutenants on the coaching staff, and with his players. They’ve competed hard and held halftime leads in four games; they’ve also kept four of their games within one score, including an OT loss in Miami. “The team is filled with rookies,” Thomas says with a half-smile. “They’re still trying to prove they can have a place in the NFL.”
In Baltimore last Thursday night, the Browns’ defense had to burn a timeout on the first play from scrimmage because they had 12 men on the field. Kessler was yanked from the game in the third quarter and replaced with veteran Josh McCown, because Kessler was struggling to execute the offense at a fast enough pace after a short week of preparation. Undrafted rookie Briean Boddy-Calhoun, whom the Browns claimed on waivers in September and is now their nickel cornerback, made a fantastic interception early in the game, but later gave up two touchdown passes. Inability to close out games is a symptom of a young team.
For veterans like Thomas and cornerback Joe Haden, who is now playing his seventh season in Cleveland, the rebuilding seems perpetual. Every year around the trade deadline, including this one, their names have been mentioned as potential trade bait. They politely say that they try not to think about potential distractions; that they only worry about what they can control; that they would love to bring a winner to the Browns’ loyal and long-suffering fans. And every year, including this one, the trade deadline passes with no move.
“I am here for a reason,” Haden said in the visitors’ locker room in Baltimore. “S—, I just gotta try to get us out of this [skid].”
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Patience has never been a virtue of the Cleveland Browns. Since purchasing the team in 2012, Haslam has fired three different head coaches and general managers. Nor is patience a virtue of this business. Jackson knows that firsthand: He was fired by the Raiders from his first head-coaching job after just one 8-8 season.
Before he took the job in Cleveland, Jackson said Jimmy and Dee Haslam told him they were committed to giving him time to see The Plan through. In other words, even if this team finishes 0-16, Jackson is confident he’ll be at the helm next season and beyond. “I never would have taken this job if I didn’t know that, and if I didn’t have assurance of that,” Jackson says. “I know that, without question. That’s not what I have ever been concerned about. They said, ‘Hue, we are going to do this the right way. It might take a little time to get it to where it needs to be, but we are comfortable and confident in you, and you are the guy we want to have here to lead this team and this organization.’ That’s comforting.”
So, what’s the timeline?
Neither Jackson nor Brown wanted to put the Browns on a clock. But you’d figure a businessman like Jimmy Haslam, who was not made available to speak for this story, would need to see the plan taking shape within two to three seasons. There is still a full-scale investment in this course of action, even down to a scouting staff that is listed on the team website as having 18 scouts and 11 scouting assistants—at least double the size of most teams’ scouting staffs in the league. But a recent CBS report by Jason La Canfora described low organizational morale as the Haslams are taking hands-on control of several departments from football analytics to marketing; the report also revealed heightening “tension” in the building, particularly between the front office and the coaching staff. The marriage of a former Moneyball exec and an old-school football guy such as Jackson has the potential for disagreements. Brown’s response: “I hope there would be a tension, just from losing.”
The team’s public vow to stick to The Plan doesn’t mean the way this season has unfolded won’t inform future personnel strategy. The trade for linebacker Jamie Collins earlier this month, for example, was an indication that the Browns may be more aggressive in adding talent heading into the second offseason under this regime. They’re projected to have nearly $65 million in salary cap space available for re-signing players they view as building blocks, such as Collins and wideout Terrelle Pryor, and their reserves of draft capital could help them if they decide to make a play for a trade target such as Patriots QB Jimmy Garoppolo.
Jackson says this season has tested him “emotionally, physically, spiritually.” He spent the offseason rehabilitating Robert Griffin III, only to have the quarterback be sidelined with a shoulder injury in Week 1. You can’t coach talent, and right now, the Browns don’t have enough. Late in last week’s 28-7 loss to Baltimore, as the Ravens were running out the clock, Jackson stood quietly on the sideline with his cheeks puffed out—a rare public view into a pain unlike any other he’s experienced in football.
“I hope this is the only time I ever have to feel this way,” Jackson says. “I get that we are in this process, and it’s something I signed up for, and you have to do everything you can to see it through. I don’t run from it. I don’t think a lot could do it. I don’t think a lot would understand it, or want to tackle it.”
Jackson meets with Jimmy Haslam three to four times a week. “When you can sit down with people, and they get your fear, they get your doubt, they get your hurt, your feelings, I think it says a lot,” Jackson says. “Those are the kind of people I work with every day.”
But after the losses, Jackson has done something that reflects on his own personal confidence. In private moments, he’s told opposing players and coaches a simple message: “You better get me now. Because this organization is coming back. I promise you that.”
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