"I underestimated this," said Jimmy Haslam regarding the ownership of the Cleveland Browns in his press conference on Tuesday. The press conference was to announce the restructure of his team's front office just one week before the NFL Scouting Combine.
It was a bold admission, coming from the Pilot Flying J CEO. It's also completely true. His underestimation of NFL ownership has cost his team and their fans another year of trying to build a winning franchise. It has also ruined his reputation around the league, despite what he may claim other owners think of him and how he's run the Browns since acquiring them in October of 2012.
What works in one corporate venue does not always translate in the NFL. The sheer lack of patience Haslam has shown in his short time in control of the Browns may be a savvy business tactic in the world he came from. But it has no place in football. He's doing the whole "NFL team ownership" thing all wrong.
|Jimmy Haslam's Timeline in Cleveland|
|August 3, 2012||Haslam announces intention to buy the Browns|
|October 17, 2012||Joe Banner hired as Browns CEO|
|December 18, 2012||Alec Scheiner hired as Browns team president|
|January 11, 2013||Rob Chudzinski hired as Browns head coach|
|January 18, 2013||Mike Lombardi hired as VP, player personnel; later made GM|
|March 5, 2013||Ray Farmer hired as assistant GM|
|December 30, 2013||Rob Chudzinski fired|
|January 23, 2014||Mike Pettine hired as Browns head coach|
|February 11, 2014||Mike Lombardi and Joe Banner fired, Farmer promoted to GM|
|via various sources|
Haslam is a billionaire who loves football. That doesn't mean he has what it takes to actually own an NFL team, make a return on his investment and also build a team with the tools it needs to win.
In the business world, if Haslam put a pair of men to run one of his corporations and in a year's time it lost a significant amount of money, firing them makes sense. In the NFL, however, if those men don't bring the team a winning record in 12 months, firing is not the answer. Not for a team like the Browns that needed rebuilding in a highly regulated environment (like having a set number of draft picks and salary cap room). This process takes more than one year.
Ditching first head coach Rob Chudzinski and his coordinators and then firing general manager Michael Lombardi and team CEO Joe Banner over a month later is just not how things are done. And it's not some kind of revolutionary new way of handling NFL ownership—it's just backwards.
Maybe Ray Farmer's promotion to general manager will work out, and maybe Mike Pettine is the head coach the Browns desperately needed. And if that's the case, Haslam's methods will be either brushed aside or praised. But the problem here is not with Farmer or Pettine or the rest of the new coaching staff—the problem is the process Haslam employed to get them where they are today.
Chudzinski was hardly the first head coach to fall on his face in his first year—Bill Belichick was 5-11 in his first season with the New England Patriots. It's not likely that Chudzinski would have been the next Belichick, but he also wasn't given much of a chance.
And it's not as though the Browns set up Chudzinski to be successful in 2013, what with a trio of quarterbacks taking turns as starter, the team having virtually no run game and their draft picks and salary cap cash hoarded for the following year. Most of what the Browns did in 2013 was forward-looking, towards this year's draft and free agency and beyond.
But no matter that—this team lost too many games and the brain trust believed a coaching turnover would fix the problem. And then Haslam fired that brain trust because they weren't in line with his coaching plans, namely the hiring of Pettine.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer has a lengthy breakdown of the coaching search which fractured the front office and led to Banner and Lombardi's dismissals. This unpleasantness could have been avoided if Haslam valued coaching continuity over asserting his own brand of control over a team he's in no way yet qualified to run.
We can all try to talk our way into believing what Haslam did was right or acceptable or the strategy of a win-minded football team. But the events are unprecedented. You don't fire a head coach, hire a new one and then fire the two most influential people in the front office—right before the scouting combine (this cannot be stated enough)—because of a power struggle-initiated temper tantrum. The Browns are not a toy.
Pettine might not be concerned about his job security—being a head coach is worth it, to be sure. And Farmer may have a full awareness of how the NFL can also stand for "not for long." But Haslam's itchy trigger finger is not good news for the Browns, who are trying to dig themselves out of a massive hole.
That hole gets deeper with each firing and hiring. It's how they got to this place to begin with. It's how Chudzinski got hired last year, how Pat Shurmur got hired two years before that. There's no evidence of a cultural change in Cleveland; instead, it's as though the culture of losing, firing, hiring, and losing again has become more entrenched. Even if this is perception and not reality, perception is mighty powerful in the secretive NFL.
The NFL is a business, but there is a point where an owner can be too corporate in his thinking. A fast firing may work in other industries but it's a liability in the NFL. And now, the Browns again are the laughingstock of the league. Haslam brought all of this upon himself.
Perhaps Haslam fancies himself a hands-on owner in the mold of Jerry Jones or Art and Dan Rooney, but right now he looks more like Dan Snyder, the owner in Washington who runs his team seemingly by whim.
NFL ownership has a steep learning curve, which Haslam admits to readily. But after 16 months on the job, Haslam has brought more harm to his franchise than good.