"I'm surprised that I've survived my own dysfunction, really." — George Michael
Cleveland Browns fans return this week to offices, warehouses, classrooms and, let's be honest, weekly bridge games at their retirement home cafeterias. They meet to engage in the biennial post-New Years tradition of speculating: Which pipe-dream candidates and previously-anonymous assistants could their team entice to trade their credibility, future and two years of their lives for what history projects to be around a five-year, $20 million contract?
Would you believe me if I told you that Pat Shurmur and GM Tom Heckert's dismissal resulted from the pair's good karma?
Fans hope new owner Jimmy Haslam III and team CEO Joe Banner change their fortunes. But who could have taken the 2010 Browns and won more than 10 games over the next two seasons? Given the Browns' recent history with coaching contracts, let's just hope they're only paying one coach after Shurmur's contract expires.
Cleveland just finished paying Eric Mangini nearly $4 million the last two seasons not to coach. When Mangini came to town, the Browns still paid $4 million over the next season for Romeo Crennel to sit at home and watch The View, had he so chosen. Romeo arrived to a Browns organization paying Butch Davis $4 million a year...not to coach.
In contrast, Chris Palmer's tenure as "not coach" of the Cleveland Browns for a thrifty $3 million from 2001-2003 strikes me as a relative bargain! By retaining Crennel through the dismal 2008 season, the Browns avoided the dubious distinction of paying someone every year for a decade to not coach.
2001: Chris Palmer, $1 million
2002: Chris Palmer, $1 million
2003: Chris Palmer, $1 million
2004: Butch Davis,* $1 million
2005: Butch Davis, $4 million
2006: Butch Davis, $4 million
2007: Butch Davis, $4 million
2009: Romeo Crennel, $4 million
2010: Romeo Crennel, $4 million
2011: Eric Manigni, $4 million
2012: Eric Mangini, $ 4 million
*Davis did not coach the final five games of 2004
For 11 out of 12 seasons, the Cleveland Browns have paid four different men over $25 million to not work for them. Their current agreement with Pat Shurmur commits the Browns to pay the former coach until 2014.
With that in mind, can we re-examine, for just a moment, the sheer audacity of the franchise asking the city of Cleveland for a cheeky $5.8 million (or simply allowing Eric Mangini to play out his contract, or waiting a year to push Butch Davis out) in sin tax money last year for "much-needed" repairs?
Not unlike Mangini, Pat Shurmur saw his tenure in Berea split between two distinct eras of leadership. Both choked on mediocre signal-callers shoved down their throats by former team president Mike Holmgren. Mangini suffered the torturous injustice of proceeding through an entire offseason, followed by a lame-duck seventeen week campaign under Holmgren. This, despite the new team president's philosophy's diametric opposition to that of the incumbent coach.
Soon after his arrival, Holmgren bragged about "pulling rank" to draft another sacrificial lamb for the altar underneath center for the Browns, Colt McCoy.
While Mangini obviously received a raw deal from the Browns, Shurmur's was putrid in comparison. Overwhelmed by his new position's player-personnel responsibilities, Mangini may have even felt an initial relief upon Mike Holmgren's arrival in Cleveland. But when Haslam arrived to replace the surrogate ownership in Holmgren, Shurmur's days were palpably numbered.
A Thankless Post
The same doom which hung over Mangini upon Holmgren's arrival haunted Pat Shurmur in the wake of Jimmy Haslam III's purchase of the Browns. But while Shurmur worked as a dead man walking from training camp through Week 17, Mangini trudged through the entire 2010 season on a death march to Holmgren's axe.
Mangini left the once-proud Browns laden with aging veterans on fat, expiring contracts. Tom Heckert and Pat Shurmur leave the city with young talent and, more importantly, hope.
Only one other team in the modern era (the 1968 Bills) fielded rookies as their leading passer, rusher and receiver. When Tom Heckert arrived in 2010, the Browns roster consisted entirely of question marks, with half-dozen proverbial periods at best. Today, the running back and receiving corps project dynamism—if they stay healthy. The offensive and defensive lines appear nearly complete.
Browns fans have yet to see the likes of Trent Richardson, Josh Gordon, Greg Little, Jabaal Sheard or Phil Taylor play their best football. Joe Thomas enters his prime at 28 years old next year. Despite the lingering uncertainty at the quarterback position, the Browns' checklist for the 2013 offseason includes far fewer needs than in 2012.
Pat Shurmur and Tom Heckert never made excuses for the backward situation they inherited. Eric Mangini came to town with a roster that went 10-6 only a season before. Shurmur and Heckert arrived in a wasteland with only about a half-dozen starting-caliber players and an abundance of expensive, often-injured veterans.
A (Possibly, Hypothetically, Maybe) Bright Future
In three drafts, Tom Heckert managed to select 20 players who started for the Browns at some point or another. Heckert found not only plug-and-play studs like Joe Haden and Phil Taylor. The Browns' former GM added under-the-radar projects like tight end Jordan Cameron, a former BYU basketball player with the ultimate un-coachable gift: height.
Heckert snagged Josh Gordon and Greg Little despite their missing the previous college football season. The physical gifts of both receivers emerged early in their careers, and Little's improvement from year one to two augurs incredibly well for the man they call "Flash" Gordon.
Should the Browns proceed to shock the NFL at some point in the next two or three years, their fans can tip their beers to Shurmur and Heckert.
You can follow me on Twitter @StepanekButton