During each NFL offseason franchises face tough decisions that can move them closer to a Super Bowl or relegate them to mediocrity. The Cleveland Browns, however, seem to have an uncanny ability for making decisions that keep them near the bottom of the league.
Of course, there is a new regime in town and this will be their first full offseason with their whole staff. Last season, they conducted the draft with the scouting department left behind when former general manager Tom Heckert was fired. They also will be looking for yet another new head coach.
There is understandably widespread skepticism about whether or not this front office can move the team in the right direction. Even owner Jimmy Haslam said the they need to prove their worth before people will trust them.
“We understand there will be skepticism until we get it right, and candidly, we deserve it,” Haslam said during his press conference announcing the firing of head coach Rob Chudzinski, via Nate Ulrich of Ohio.com.
This offseason, Haslam, CEO Joe Banner, general manager Michael Lombardi and assistant general manager Ray Farmer will navigate what is the biggest offseason since the team’s return to the NFL in 1999.
If the correct decisions are made, they can build upon a very talented core group and propel the Browns into contention. If they follow in the footsteps of front offices before them, then the Browns could be set back another three to five years.
Here are the five biggest decisions the Browns will face in this pivotal offseason.
First things first, the Browns need to figure out who their next head coach is going to be. They are currently the only NFL franchise that does not have someone to lead their roster on Sundays.
As novel of an idea as it is to have someone be a player-coach or have the fans vote on plays via text, as some on Twitter have suggested, they will need to make a hire at some point.
It looks as though that hire will not be made for two more weeks. The two names the Browns reportedly have heavy interest in will be playing in the Super Bowl on February 2. According to Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com, Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase and Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn remain atop Cleveland's wish list.
Quinn was the first coach the Browns interviewed all the way back on New Year’s Day and they could conduct a second interview during the Super Bowl off week if they so choose. They could not hire Quinn or Gase, who has refused to talk about interviewing with anyone until the playoffs are over, until after the Super Bowl, though.
According to Mary Kay Cabot of The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Gase is leaning toward staying at Denver. This would be bad for public perception, because as La Canfora noted in his article, Gase was the first coach the Browns asked to interview when they fired Chudzinski.
That would mean that the two coaches who were the perceived front-runners for the job, Gase and New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, would have told them no thank you.
Either way, the Browns cannot waste time once the Super Bowl passes because most assistants have been hired and staffs are complete. They also need to get their next head coach in the building so he can have input on the rest of their crucial offseason decisions.
The Browns' next key decision this offseason is deciding who to let hit free agency and who they need to make sure returns to Cleveland next year.
Many would simplify this decision down to center Alex Mack and safety T.J. Ward. While they are the big names that the Browns must decide upon, they are not the only decisions to be made.
Should they try to re-sign guard Shawn Lauvao even though the offensive line struggled so mightily last season and he has never really grown into a quality starter?
Should they try to re-sign inside linebacker Craig Robertson? Robertson would not be brought back as a starter but could be re-signed as quality depth. While he was exposed last season playing heavy minutes, he is still just 25 and could be a very good backup.
Should the Browns give cornerback Joe Haden a contract extension or let him walk into the final year of his rookie deal without a guaranteed future? The smart money is on the team giving him a Darrelle Revis-type deal and making him one of the top-three highest-paid corners in the league.
Should they part ways with wide receiver Davone Bess? His recent arrest at the Fort Lauderdale airport painted a disturbing picture of someone who may have deep-rooted issues.
The Browns will need to tread lightly with this move. They probably have to cut ties but cannot look as though they are just abandoning someone in his darkest moment.
Whoever the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns will be, he may have a brand-new quarterback to utilize in his first season. The Browns own the fourth and 26th picks in the NFL draft and desperately need to find a solution at quarterback.
While the quarterback class has dwindled because of poor performances late in the year and players opting to stay in school, the Browns have still been connected to names at the top of the draft.
Last week, ESPN’s Mel Kiper released his first mock draft (behind pay wall) and it had the Browns selecting UCF quarterback Blake Bortles. It also had Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel being selected first overall by the Houston Texans.
In CBSSports.com Jason La Canfora’s latest report, however, he says that a source told him the Browns would be willing to trade up in the draft for Manziel.
Whether you as a fan love or hate Manziel, it doesn’t matter. What matters is if the Browns love or hate him. If the front office decides he is “the guy,” then they need to do everything in their power to make sure they get him.
The Browns have not selected a quarterback higher than 22nd since 1999 when they took Tim Couch first overall. If they want Manziel, then they have to be aggressive and not let him slip away.
If they decide Manziel is going to be the franchise quarterback, then they also better surround him with a slew of weapons. All-Pro wide receiver Josh Gordon is a nice start, but they need to draft another stud pass-catcher, sign or draft a quality running back and beef up the offensive line.
If they don’t give Manziel an upgraded offense, then he will have something else in common with Couch; they will both be busts who never had a legitimate shot to be successful.
Fans and media never talk about one of the most important decisions the front office will need to make this offseason. It is often viewed as out of their control and falling squarely on the shoulders of the player.
The Browns need to decide how to keep their young playmakers on the field and out of the news. In each of the past two offseasons, the Browns have lost a key player to suspension.
Two years ago, it was Haden who was suspended four games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy. The Browns did not win a game in his absence, and it seemed that a dominant cornerback might have been the difference between victory and defeat in all four contests.
Last offseason, it was Gordon who was suspended two games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. This was his second offense. One more misstep and he will be suspended for an entire season, forcing him to have to apply to be reinstated to the NFL.
So how can the Browns keep these players out of trouble? That’s a very good question that the front office gets paid a ton of money to answer. The one thing they cannot afford to do is nothing.
Was this outlandish and over the top? Yes, it probably was. Did it work? It certainly seems so.
While Bryant has been a load to handle on the sidelines, he has kept his nose clean off the field. On the field, he has caught 185 balls for 2,615 yards and 25 touchdowns.
It is tough to say whether it was Jones’ outside-the-box tactics that helped him stay on the straight and arrow, but at least he tried something different.
The Browns need to do the same.
It will be a long and trying road, but the Browns need to start to change their reputation both in Cleveland and nationally. FirstEnergy Stadium is going to sell out no matter what the team does, that’s just how Cleveland is. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have fences to mend.
There is no denying that there has been major damage done to the perception of the Browns over the past two seasons.
From Haslam’s company Pilot/Flying J being raided and investigated, to firing Chudzinski after just one year and now the Bess debacle, the Browns have their work cut out for them.
Winning games can solve most of their woes, but that won't cure everything. The Browns have become the model of instability and turmoil. While a lot of that perception was created before they arrived in Cleveland, they are currently holding the keys to this toxic wasteland.
Until the Browns can hire a coach and let him implement a plan for a few seasons, the job will always be viewed as “radioactive” as NFL Network’s Albert Breer tweeted.
In Cleveland, it would do them a lot of good to allow Lombardi out from behind the curtain and speaking to the public. He has plenty of enemies in the media and fanbase. If they could hear his rationale behind maneuvers and decisions, they might just cut him some slack.
Finally, Haslam needs to clear up this scandal with his company. Fans have already lost their trust in him, and it will not return until they know for sure he will not end up behind bars. He has been open and contrite about the legal process, which is a good start.
Now he needs to make it go away permanently.
If the Browns start winning and winging big, no one will be talking about his legal issues. But that seems like a long shot considering everything that has transpired in the past 15 seasons.
If they cannot have a winner, Browns fans would at least like for their owner to not be the poster boy of corrupt American corporations.