On Tuesday, at the NFL owners' meetings in Chicago, it was made official: Jimmy Haslam is now the owner of the Cleveland Browns. It's not the end of the Randy Lerner era—he'll retain 30 percent ownership for the next four years—but the decision-maker is Haslam, effective immediately.
His first big decision—likely the biggest one he'll make while the 2012 season is still underway—was to announce that Browns team president Mike Holmgren will be out at the end of the year, replaced by former Philadelphia Eagles president Joe Banner, who will join the team on October 25 and work with Holmgren for the rest of the season to ease the transition. Banner will officially be the team's CEO, but all football operations will also report to him, though the exact extent of the power structure is yet to be determined.
That may not be the only major move that the Haslam-Banner-led Browns organization makes. According to Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, current team general manager Tom Heckert isn't too optimistic about his chances to stick around despite helping build what is, by all indications, a legitimately talented Browns roster.
No team has undergone as many significant changes in recent years than the Browns. Since re-forming as a franchise in 1999, they've had six head coaches and almost as many rebuilding plans. The Browns desperately need stability from the front office on down, but it appears it will take another year for anything to potentially take hold in the long-term.
This isn't, however, a bad thing.
There's no guarantee that Heckert will be out of a job after this season despite his apparent worries otherwise. Heckert has done well as Cleveland's general manager, making proper draft-day decisions and helping put together the young team they have today. Sure, the Browns currently sit at 1-5, but this is a roster rife with potential, and another season to mesh—along with another solid draft class—should set the Browns up for becoming a legitimate contender.
Heckert's job is in jeopardy, however, simply because of the ownership change. New owners—and now, CEOs, with Banner on board—have their own ideas of how teams should be run, and often, that runs counter to the way things had been done before their arrival. But during the evaluation process that begins today and goes through the end of the season, Haslam and Banner could quite possibly choose to keep Heckert around, at least for one more year.
The removal of Holmgren as team president was a necessary move, however, and one that will help the Browns starting next season. Holmgren has been criticized as not being 100 percent committed to the Browns—he's rarely available to the media, spends less time in Cleveland than many are comfortable with and seems intent on building a team that's disparate to the way he'd like them to play.
Even if head coach Pat Shurmur, offensive coordinator Brad Childress and defensive coordinator Dick Jauron all keep their jobs, it doesn't mean the way the Browns approach games will stay the same.
Holmgren is a West Coast Offense devotee, even if that means forcing rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden to abandon the skills that made him a first-round talent to begin with. Those running football teams, especially ones as young and still learning like Cleveland's, must steer away from rigid philosophies and play to the strengths of their roster and let the team organically build its own identity.
Forcing a square peg into a round hole might work for teams trying to do so with an established history of success and a new player they want to make fit, but the Browns simply need their best players to play their best games—and if that means more shotgun passes, a traditional running game and no more West Coast looks and their attendant complex play calls, so be it. That is not so with Holmgren running the show, and his seeming unwillingness to change has been one reason why the Browns' five-year plan under his auspices hasn't taken hold.
The coaching situation doesn't ameliorate this situation. Shurmur was brought on by Holmgren in 2011 mainly because he had some success in developing St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, but Bradford was a No. 1 overall pick and had more struggles in his rookie season than high points. Shurmur may know a thing or two about quarterbacks—just as Holmgren does—but when it comes to installing, building and executing on offense, Shurmur has made more misses than hits.
The most important thing is that if Shurmur is replaced, key components of the offense don't go with him. Cleveland has one of the better offensive lines in the league, a quarterback with an incredible amount of potential, an improving receiving corps and a major offensive weapon in running back Trent Richardson. To blow up this side of the ball when they seem to be a receiver and a tight end (and a bit of discipline) away from putting all the pieces together would be a major step backward.
On defense, there's little to no reason why Haslam and Banner should choose to replace Jauron. Injuries have left the defense wanting this year, as did the four-game suspension of cornerback Joe Haden, but at full health, they are a good defense, and again have a number of young players who are in some cases just weeks away from being legitimate impact players.
In the NFL, as in anything, not all change is bad, and not all change is good, but it most certainly happens. Something clearly needs to be different in Cleveland, and changes beyond the dismissal of Holmgren are coming, but it doesn't have to be a wholesale dismantling of what they've built thus far.
Just having Banner (and perhaps another football mind to be determined later) in Holmgren's place should provide the right kind of change of direction to put the Browns on a better path. As long as Haslam and Banner recognize that change can be small and incremental and not wholesale, the removal of Holmgren won't necessarily be the tip of a very large iceberg but rather one of a very limited, targeted number of moves.