It is the season of eternal sports hope. Baseball spring training is underway, and the NFL has the scouting combine in Indianapolis. In the NFL, this is a week filled with news and speculation. The Cleveland Browns are no stranger to this concept.
It seems every year the Browns enter the combine with a high draft pick and dreams of escaping the prison of NFL mediocrity. Unfortunately, it seems that every year the Browns end up incorrectly evaluating a good portion of their selections.
It is now first-time general manager Ray Farmer’s turn to run the show. He has a chance to prove he is unlike anyone who has done his job in Cleveland since 1999. If he can put together a consistently competitive team he will be a legend.
If he cannot then he will join the long list of former coaches, general managers, CEOs and presidents who are getting paid to take a vacation.
The Browns seemed to make more news than normal at the combine this week. While some of it actually had to do with the players who are being evaluated, most of it did not. Leave it to the Browns to make waves about their coaching search a few weeks after it concludes.
Let’s take a look at the news from the past few days in Indianapolis. It’s been a whirlwind if you’re a Browns fan.
Last Friday, new Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer addressed the media in Indianapolis. He spoke for 20 minutes and like a seasoned vet he did not reveal much. The most telling moment of his press conference was actually something he did not say.
Farmer was asked directly about quarterback Brian Hoyer and had positive thoughts.
“I’ll stand (by the positive comments I made) earlier, I definitely believe in the traits Brian Hoyer has demonstrated,” Farmer told the media via Ohio.com. “Nevertheless, competition drives this league. When you have guys that push the guy in front of them, that’s when the football team gets better. Every position on this team is definitely up for competition.”
So who will be that competition? It’s looking more and more like Brandon Weeden won’t make it long enough to have a shot. Farmer was asked about Weeden and the NFL.com report that he wants out of Cleveland.
“We are only going to talk to Brandon and his agent directly. If they decide to tell everyone else where they are at then that is in their court,” said Farmer. “I will not tell the media what I will do. Those will come out in time. We will deal with Brandon and his agent and he will release that information when he feels that is appropriate.”
That didn’t quite have the same feel as the Hoyer answer now did it? That was more of a father scolding his son.
Maybe the report just rubbed Farmer the wrong way. Maybe he still feels that Weeden can be a good quarterback in the NFL. Maybe?
“When we grade players, we grade players on what they’ve done in the NFL,” said Farmer. “The college draft is a projection. Once you are in the NFL, you get graded upon your performance. We have a grade on Brandon and in time his agent and he will both know where we stand.”
Well I think that pretty much sums it all up.
Not that it should be very hard to sell an athlete in his early 20s on millions of dollars and the keys to a franchise, but the deed was apparently done last week.
Just days after Manziel praised Cleveland and just about every other team pickin in the top 10 who needs a quarterback; his QB guru explained just how interested Manziel really is in Cleveland.
George Whitfield Jr. told Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer that not only does Manziel want to play for the Browns but that they should trade up to the top pick to get him.
Never mind the fact that its is good business for Whitfield to have guided another number one overall selection. I’m sure he is speaking from his heart, not his pockets.
While training out in San Diego with the noted quarterback expert, Manziel stressed that he wants to go No. 1 to the Texans, but "if something happens and it's the Cleveland Browns (at No. 4), I'm going to pour my heart out for the Dawg Pound and try to win a Super Bowl for Cleveland. I don't care if they've had 20 starting quarterbacks since 1999. I'm going to be the 21st and the guy that brought them the Super Bowl.
Whitfield, who grew up a Browns fan and even played quarterback at Massillon High School about 40 minutes from Cleveland, says he is the guy who sold Manziel on playing for the Browns.
Then, he said, 'tell me about the Dawg Pound, what is that?' And I said, 'man, it's probably the coolest, strongest section of fans in any sport, so you'll have Raider nation and you'll have this and this and this,' but I said, 'in the Dawg Pound, if it's bitter cold or it's three degrees and ice, they're there in droves.' I said 'they just want to win. They really, truly just want to win. So we talked about it and he just listened. He's going to be excited wherever he lands, but I know he's kind of gotten teed up about Cleveland. He had a sense it was a football place but I've assured him, it's a football state.'
So don’t worry Browns fans, it’s not the money that accompanies being a top-four selection that Manziel wants. It truly is the passion of football fans that is attracting him.
It seems to me that Manziel is not the only person that Whitfield is trying to sell something to.
Just when you though the Browns wacky coaching search could not get any more odd, ProFootballTalk.com dropped a bomb on the NFL world. They reported that the Browns tried to trade for San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh.
That’s not the craziest part. According to multiple reports, it actually almost happened.
While the 49ers and Harbaugh have denied that any such talks took place, the Browns played coy. They issued a statement on Friday saying, "The team conducted an extensive coaching search, and explored several options. That search produced an outstanding head coach in Mike Pettine, and we're excited about his future with the club."
Then on Sunday, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam confirmed that some type of talks actually took place.
"There was an opportunity there, and it didn't materialize," Haslam told The USA Today.
The twists and turns just never stop in Cleveland.
So now the Browns have a head coach and his last name is not Harbaugh. How does Mike Pettine feel about the reports of the Browns attempting a trade? He made his thoughts very clear via Nate Ulrich of The Akron Beacon Journal:
When I got the phone call, I did a little bit of shoot the messenger...I said, ‘How does this affect my tenure as the Cleveland Browns head coach? Has that changed?’ The obvious answer was ‘no.’...
I think my next sentence, I either used the word ‘flying’ followed by something, or referenced a part of a rat’s body. I think that’s noise. That’s something that has no bearing on my job moving forward...
What it tells me is that the Cleveland Browns have a desire to win and get this team back to a championship level. To me, it shows the commitment. But as far as how it affects me and my approach to how I'm going to coach this football team and how we are moving forward, [it] has zero effect.
It is very hard not to like Pettine. He could have danced around the issue, but he punched it square in the nose and kept moving. This is a solid start to his first head-coaching job.
Before Michael Lombardi and Joe Banner were shown the door in Cleveland it seemed like a forgone conclusion that center Alex Mack was going to be playing somewhere else in 2014. Apparently Ray Farmer does not care how things used to be.
Last week Tony Grossi of ESPN Cleveland reported that the Browns had refocused their energy on getting Mack back with the team next season.
On Sunday Ian Rapoport of NFL Network took that one step further, quoting a source who said it is now the Browns’ “priority No. 1.”:
With the quarterback position unsettled in Cleveland, retaining the Pro Bowl center is important for whoever takes the snaps. Mack's experience would be especially helpful if the Browns use the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft on a quarterback.
Rapoport reported earlier this month that the 28-year-old center from Cal had a "better chance" of returning to Cleveland after general manager Michael Lombardi and CEO Joe Banner were fired.
Mack is one of two key free agents the Browns are at risk of losing this offseason. The other, safety T.J. Ward, is a much more likely candidate for the franchise tag.
Mack has never missed a game as the center of the Browns. In fact, he is so tough that in 2011 he played a game with appendicitis, had surgery after the game and was back starting the very next week.
As I mentioned earlier, the Browns have another free agent who is a much more likely candidate for the franchise tag. Safety T.J. Ward would only cost the Browns about $8 million next season if he was designated their franchise player. That might not even be an option if the Browns have it their way.
Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that the Browns have a very real interest in Bills safety Jairus Byrd.
Pettine and Byrd worked together in 2013 during Pettine's one-year cameo as defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills. Adding an elite player like Byrd would strengthen Cleveland's secondary while also giving Pettine someone who could teach his defense to Browns players.
Byrd is scheduled to become a free agent next month, but the Bills could complicate matters by using their franchise tag on the safety. That would necessitate a trade to get Byrd to Cleveland. The Bills would like to keep Byrd and are scheduled to meet with him this week.
If the Browns have to trade for Byrd then it would probably come down to the price tag. If it were reasonable then the Browns would gladly give Byrd a long-term deal. He has proven to be a top-tier safety over time.
If their price tag is too high they can always tag Ward and see if he can duplicate his All-Pro campaign from 2013.