The news broken by Kenny Roda, Tony Rizzo and WKNR yesterday about the Browns being sold shocked most people in Cleveland. Yes, it’s been a miserable 13 years since the Browns came back to the NFL under the Lerner family, but the Browns were coming off a stretch that included a very exciting draft with the additions of Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden. Enthusiasm was finally high again, and even the media was being generally positive. So that’s the context of this news that impacts how people are reacting.
With a day to let this sink in, here are some of my thoughts:
Randy Lerner was not a good owner, so in the grand scheme of things this is good news
Like most people, I didn’t think Randy Lerner was a good owner. He wasn’t the “worst owner in the NFL” like the kids on WKNR were claiming, but he was pretty bad. Yes, he never hesitated to spend money, and of course he’s from Cleveland so he was committed to keeping the team here, so he had some positive qualities. But all of this was overshadowed by his utter lack of leadership and management skills. I wrote about this in a post called “Clueless in Berea” back in 2009 when the Eric Mangini experiment was unraveling:
It’s obvious that Randy Lerner has never managed anything in his entire life. He seems to think that the secret to creating a great football organization is to pick qualified people and get out of the way, and with Lerner that means getting completely out of the way.
But life isn’t that simple, and management certainly isn’t that simple. Problems always arise. Sometimes they have to do with personalities, other times they have to do with flawed strategies. In the end you need a strong person at the top who can oversee what’s going on and ask the tough questions. The person at the top has to be willing to get his hands dirty. He has to be a problem solver, and he has to demand accountability from the GM and the head coach. That has never happened in Berea under Lerner’s watch.
You don’t have to get involved like a Daniel Snyder. Rather, you have to stay on top of what Mangini and Kokinis are doing, and grill them about things that don’t seem to make sense.
The quarterback situation is a prime example. I was willing to give Mangini the benefit of the doubt, but it’s obvious now that the process he used to select and then announce a starter only days before the opener blew up in his face. As the owner, Lerner should be on top of this situation. What’s the plan? Instead, Lerner has no clue what’s going on. That’s a stunning admission.
Lerner followed one basic management principle: employ experts and let them do their job. He went after big names like Butch Davis and then up and coming executives like Phil Savage. Yet until he picked Mike Holmgren, he never had anyone used to managing an entire football operation. He thought he could hand someone the keys and let them work their magic, but he wasn’t there to oversee things when Butch Davis was breaking down emotionally and Phil Savage was acting more like a scout than a general manager. The Eric Mangini/George Kokinis farce was just the tip of the iceberg.
Lerner brought nothing to the table. Still, he may have finally found someone who could handle everything in Mike Holmgren, who brought in Tom Heckert. If the enthusiasm for TRich and Weeden ends up being justified, then Lerner’s last regime might have finally helped get the Browns on track. That said, a new owner should be a significant upgrade over Lerner.
Jimmy Haslam seems like a solid guy
We really have no idea what kind of owner Jimmy Haslam will be. We know he’s an excellent businessman, so one would hope he would be a more effective owner than Randy Lerner. He’s also described as a hands-on business manager, so he shouldn’t have any problem managing a football team. Still, we’ve seen successful businessmen come in and be terrible owners as well, so there’s no guarantee here. So the fear of the unknown might be spooking some people. We want someone like Dan Gilbert, but don’t want a Daniel Snyder.
The news headlines that focused on Jimmy Haslam being a “1000% Steelers fan” are really pathetic. It’s another example of how lame ESPN can be at times. It was already big news, but they took one quote out of context to try to add more drama.
This quote spooked some Browns fans, but Haslam didn’t grow up as a Steelers fan, and he said that only when asked about his allegiance after he bought a minority interest in the Steelers, so of course you’re a fan of a team once you purchase an ownership interest. Assuming he buys the Browns he’ll be a million-plus-percent Browns fan. This shouldn’t be an issue.
Haslam does seem to be a die-hard football fan, so in that sense we should be getting a committed, enthusiastic owner. So on first blush he seems like the kind of guy fans should be happy with, but there’s no guarantee.
Impact on Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert
As I mentioned above, many Browns fans, including me, are very excited about what H&H accomplished this offseason with Richardson, Weeden, Schwartz and Josh Gordon being added to the mix. The Browns finally appear to be on the right track with Holmgren and Heckert running the show, so for many of us we don’t want to see everything blown up again.
Stability and continuity are very important for success in the NFL, and we’ve had little of that in Cleveland as every Lerner regime blew up after several years. While Haslam may end up being a great owner, fans are obviously wary of wholesale changes slowing down the progress many of us expect this year.
For this reason, many Browns fans were not totally enthusiastic about the news. Guys on the radio like Bruce Hooley were “shocked” that it wasn’t a 100% favorable reaction, but that just shows the bubble these guys live in, as they think the irate callers to talk radio represent all Browns fans. That’s just ridiculous. Also, many fans who would love to see Lerner go have legitimate questions about the new owner and what he’ll do with the current regime.
Hopefully, Haslam’s plan will be based in part on what the team looks like this year. If the latest draft produces an exciting offense and the young team shows real progress on the field in 2012, then he would be foolish to blow everything up. Yes, a new owner wants their own team of professionals to run things, but changing course on a successful rebuilding project would demonstrate a desire to satisfy his own ego over taking a practical approach to building the Browns as a winner. For example, if he brought in a new GM who wants a 3-4 defense instead of the current 4-3 we’ve spent three years building, then my head would explode. But there’s nothing we’ve seen so far to suggest Haslam would do something that stupid, but of course we’ll have to wait and see. The key for me is that I don’t want to see a huge change in philosophy right away or at all if we’re seeing progress with the current plan.
Barring a collapse on the field in 2012, I’d like to see Heckert stay. I’d also like to see Mike Holmgren stay on in some capacity, but much of his work is done. He set up Heckert and the front office, and he transformed an old, crappy team into a young team with huge potential. The last draft could be the building block that sets the stage for a rebirth of the franchise. Even if Holmgren leaves, if the Browns get to the next level Holmgren will deservedly get a lot of the credit. Of course the opposite will be true if Weeden and company flop.
Holmgren’s deal might include a provision where he gets his entire contract paid upon a sale. Most of the guys are on the radio are assuming that Holmgren will be gone right away, particularly with the rumors that former Eagles president Joe Banner might be involved in Haslam’s group with the plan being he comes in as team president. But anything is possible here. They might ask Holmgren to stay on as a consultant through this season and beyond. Also, with all the money coming his way, I wouldn’t even be shocked if Holmgren took some of it in the form of an ownership piece with the new Haslam group. Or he could just go back to Seattle. The point is that anything is possible here.
The impact on Pat Shurmur and the team
As mentioned above, I hope that Haslam’s plan for the future takes into account the current state of the team. If we see progress I hope he wants to build on it as opposed to sacrificing that just in the name of asserting control.
That said, there’s no doubt that Shurmur will have much less room for error now that Holmgren won’t be calling all the shots. If the team plays well and he avoids his first-year mistakes, then I would expect Haslam and Banner to stick with him. But if we see real talent from the new players coupled with more mistakes from Shurmur and the coaching staff, then we can expect to see a change.
With all these factors, I’m cautiously optimistic about the impending sale. Lerner obviously didn’t have his heart in it, and doesn’t have the management skills to run the Browns long term. Even if Holmgren stayed five years and then left Heckert in charge as GM, Lerner would probably find a way to screw things up.
For the long run, Haslam seems to have the potential to be a very good owner. We can’t be sure of course, but I feel pretty good about it so far.