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Jimmy Haslam introduces Joe Banner as Browns CEO


Image source: Browns Official Facebook Page

In another impressive news conference, Jimmy Haslam introduced Joe Banner to the Cleveland media today. We heard many of things that we often hear when a new regime takes over, but for the first time the chief executive was joined by an owner who is committed to being involved in the management of the franchise. After Randy Lerner’s absentee ownership, Haslam and Banner came across as a breath of fresh air.

Many in the media are quite giddy, and for good reason. Just having a leader like Jimmy Haslam coupled with a smart and capable NFL executive should bode well for the Browns in the future. That said, nothing Joe Banner said was materially different from what Mike Holmgren said when he took over as team president. The goal was to get a team of smart people who would all be on the same page working towards a common goal. Both emphasized building through the draft. Banner seems open to strategically using free agency, but he emphasized that free agents can be counterproductive if you sign them before a team is ready to compete.

Frankly, Holmgren has started a youth movement with the Browns that should provide a nice foundation for Haslam and Banner, regardless of whether they keep Tom Heckert and Pat Shurmur. On that front they seem genuine in their statements that both men will be evaluated at the end of the year. But assuming they don’t do something stupid, like bring in a GM and head coach who want to run the 3-4 over the 4-3, they should be fine as long as they can identify good coaches and GM candidates. I do hope they keep Heckert, and Shurmur should get consideration if he turns the season around, but Haslam and Banner need to get comfortable with these guys.

On offense, the system matters less, as all of these players can fit into another system. But on defense, switching to the 3-4 and in effect throwing away three productive drafts that have built the foundation of a good defensive front would be idiotic. I don’t expect that.

Many are enjoying kicking Mike Holmgren while he’s down, but his legacy is hardly set in stone. He and Heckert have gone with a dramatic youth movement. If the Browns are in the playoffs in the next couple of years with guys like Trent Richardson, Josh Gordon, Brandon Weeden, Phil Taylor and Joe Haden leading the way, many of us will happily credit Holmgren and Heckert for building the foundation of that success.

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Randy Lerner selling the Cleveland Browns

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.

Cautiously optimistic

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.

PD explains Tony Grossi decision

Here’s the explanation from The Plain Dealer about why Tony Grossi was reassigned from the Browns beat.

Here’s one part that’s worth noting:

• The Browns had nothing to do with the decision. None of the editors involved talked with anyone connected with the team before making the call. In fact, the Browns’ first communication with the paper’s leadership was not until Wednesday, after the decision had been made, when Egger met with Browns President Mike Holmgren and Lerner.

• The Browns did not threaten to remove Grossi’s media credential, nor did such a consideration play any role in the decision, as a radio talk-show host alleged last week.

What a shock! A radio talk-show host speculated that the Browns had something to do with this . . .

I think it was a bad decision. If I were working in Berea, I would argue that the Browns should come out and accept Grossi’s apology. But that’s their decision.

I’m not a fan of Randy Lerner. In many ways, I think he’s clueless on how to manage people. That said, he does spend money, and he’s at least trying to bring in experts to run the show. I think Mike Holmgren is his best hire, and I believe that Holmgren is building an organization that can be successful for the long term.

I also think that Grossi has been doing a good job. Most of the loud voices on Twitter seem to disagree, but everyone will have their own opinion. Grossi screwed up, but this change seems like an overreaction.

What should Mike Holmgren do with Eric Mangini?

Most of us are assuming that Mike Holmgren is going to accept the position of football czar with the Cleveland Browns. Naturally I’m relieved, as it’s painfully obvious that owner Randy Lerner is incapable of managing the Browns organization. His only hope is to pick a smart, experienced guy like Mike Holmgren and pray that Holmgren can do it. Lerner adds nothing to the mix, other than his willingness to write checks, which is obviously an important factor.

If Holmgren comes to Cleveland, we’ll find out soon what role he intends to play. Despite the speculation that he will want to coach the team as well, I’m assuming for now that he intends to run the show but have someone else be the head coach on the field. Which then brings us to Eric Mangini.

The season has been a complete mess, but it’s clear that the team has not quit on Mangini, and he deserves some credit for winning the last two games. So, many are asking the obvious question – should Holmgren keep Mangini?

Terry Pluto suggests that Holmgren ought to consider keeping Mangini.

Yes, the Browns need changes. Yes, they need impact players. Yes, Mangini made mistakes, his biggest being the failure of his friend George Kokinis as the general manager.

Where he needs help is with the draft and acquiring players to fit an overall vision for winning formulated by a front office and coach working together. Picking the right players is a full-time job, one that often has been done poorly since the Browns returned in 1999.

Holmgren should concentrate on making the roster stronger, the scouting staff better, the organization run more efficiently. Because on the field, the Browns are a well-disciplined and determined team. They could easily have quit during a season that started 1-11 amid reports that the coach would be fired when it was over.

These are good points, and generally I agree with Pluto about Holmgren’s role. But, can he work with Mangini?

On a personal level, none of us have any idea. The two men both like having control, but they both work hard and it’s clear they have mutual respect. Until they get together and discuss it in detail none of can know the answer here.

The two men, however, have very different football philosophies, and this is where I think there’s no way Mangini stays without making some significant adjustments.

First, Holmgren is one of the premiere experts on the West Coast offense. Mangini is from the Belichick/Parcells coaching tree and I can’t think of any coach from that group who has ever used the West Coast offense, let alone embraced it. Under Mangini and Brian Daboll, the Browns offense has been a joke. I defy anyone to explain the philosophy behind this offense. The emergence of Jerome Harrison is exciting and infuriating at he same time, as Mangini squandered game after game with Harrison on the bench, or worse yet on the inactive list.

It makes no sense to make Mike Holmgren the football czar and expect him to pick players for an offensive system that is new to him. The first order of business would be to see if Holmgren and Mangini could agree on a new coaching staff on offense that would run the West Coast offense. This obviously would be an adjustment for Mangini, but he’s the one with the 3-11 record and one of the worst offenses in recent memory. Without an agreement here, Holmgren should let Mangini go.

Some might argue, as Holmgren even acknowledged, that this isn’t fair. As Pluto pointed out, Mangini has restored discipline and the players are playing hard despite a poor record. But have we ever seen a Mike Holmgren team that lacked discipline or didn’t play hard? Doesn’t Holmgren know practically every coach from the Bill Walsh coaching tree? I would expect him to find a coach that would be inclined to enforce discipline, so this factor shouldn’t carry the day.

The offense should be non-negotiable. With Holmgren’s system, he’ll know which coaches to hire, which free agents to sign, which players to keep and which college kids to draft. More specifically, he can make a decision on Brady Quinn. I suspect Quinn would do better in a West Coast offense, but would anyone question Mike Holmgren’s judgment? Can you think of anyone better to make that assessment?

If they can get past this hurdle and come to an understanding regarding the offense, then Holmgren should seriously consider keeping Mangini. Despite the problems on defense this year, there have been some good signs, and Mangini’s expertise is on defense. Also, the special teams have been excellent this year.

Regarding personnel issues, Mangini has made plenty of mistakes, but he’s made up for some of them as well. For example, David Veikune looks like a bad pick, but the Browns picked up Matt Roth on waivers who looks like a steal. Mangini has found ways to use a number of different players on defense, and the team seems to be making progress in that area. Most of the Jet players have been solid contributors, if not Pro Bowl players. Everyone ripped Mangini for getting old players, and now everyone is surprised to see the team playing hard. Isn’t it possible that the former Jets helped Mangini set the positive tone?

Also, Mangini resisted the urge to go after high-profile free agents, as he’s clearly taking the long view with the Browns. I still think the decision to draft center Alex Mack was a good one. He gets better every week, and the offensive line deserves much of the credit for Jerome Harrison’s monster day yesterday. For years everyone in Cleveland wanted to Browns to draft linemen, but Mangini got little credit for the kind of move that helps the team in the long run. This move saved significant cap space and the Browns are in a good position on that front. Guys like Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow were shipped off as well. Again, these are moves that hurt the Browns in the short term but should help in the long term.

Holmgren is a smart guy, and he’ll see the positives. He won’t be distracted by the record. He’ll dig deep and see the good along with the bad. If he and Mangini can settle on a strategy on offense and forge a working relationship where they compliment each other, then this marriage just might work out well for the Browns. The good news is that Lerner will be putting Holmgren in charge, and Holmgren will not hesitate to cut his losses if the marriage doesn’t work. That’s the critical issue. We can’t count on Lerner to oversee the situation, so one of the two has to be the ultimate boss. If that guy is Holmgren, then he has to have the final say on Mangini and everything else about the Browns.

UPDATE: It’s official. Mike Holmgren has accepted the position of team president and he will not be coaching the team.

Mangini and Kokinis weren’t getting along

Tony Grossi reports that Eric Mangini and George Kokinis were not getting along as “both men became disenchanted with the other early on.”

This is pretty surprising, given that Kokinis was Mangini’s hand-picked GM. On the other hand, nothing ever seems to go smoothly in Berea under Randy Lerner. There’s been more drama at Browns’ headquarters than we typically see in a full season of Grey’s Anatomy. Remember the turf battles between Phil Savage and former team President John Collins?

It all goes back to Lerner. He’s doing all the hiring here, and then he leaves the building and expects things to run smoothly. Now he’s reportedly bringing in Ernie Accorsi and Bernie Kosar. The Accorsi move in particular would be a great one, but can we expect the drama to cease as long as Lerner’s the owner? Time will tell.

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