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Bewildered in Berea

The mess in Berea reached comical levels yesterday with the abrupt firing of Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi by an owner who acknowledged he pretty much screwed up the first year and a half of his ownership. I’m really not sure how to react to all of this, except to say that Jimmy Haslam may have finally stumbled into a situation that has a chance of working, with competent football people coaching the team and running the front office. None of us really knows whether Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine can work well together, let alone turn the Browns into a winning franchise. But both seem to be hard working and well respected in their fields, so at least that’s a start.

As Browns fans we’re all numb to this nonsense at this point, and the Browns continue to be a laughing stock as fans and reporters chronicle the decades of futility along with the past 14 years to complete turmoil. In the end, however, all that matters is whether Haslam has finally put together an organization that has a chance to succeed.

The most troublesome part of the organization, however, is Haslam himself. It’s clear now that he and Banner were a poor fit, and adding a toxic character like Mike Lombardi to the mix only made things worse. Banner and Lombardi obviously made some smart moves, like bringing in Brian Hoyer and parlaying a disapointing Trent Richardson into a first rounder, but the coaching fisacos trumped all of that along with some very questionable personel decisions.

But we’re also hearing troubling reports about Haslam. Reportedly he listened to glowing reports from Bill Belichick and Urban Meyer about Greg Schiano and was very impressed with him after a pointless interview while Banner stewed and basically refused to participate. How could anyone want to consider Greg Schiano after his disatrous tenure in Tampa? I don’t care if Vince Lombardi’s ghost recommended him. He clearly was in over his head in the NFL, and from a PR perspective even talking to him made the Browns look like clowns. The fact that Haslam’s braintrust couldn’t stop him from seeking out Schiano drives home the point that Haslam had lost confidence in Banner and Lombardi. The main job for Ray Farmer now is controlling his owner, who seems to seek advice from everyone who has a big name in the NFL and changes his mind constantly.

Meanwhile, Banner seemed obsessed with repeating his self-proclaimed Andy Reid triumph, looking for every young coach that was building a reputation. The idea of putting so much stock in Adam Gase seemed absurd. Meanwhile, Mike Lombardi was apparently angling to bring in Josh McDaniels, someone who had a reputation of being just as toxic as him. Looking back, it shouldn’t be surprising that the coaching search looked chaotic, as the Browns had three guys with diverging agendas involved in the search.

Somehow, however, this “braintrust” settled on two solid candidates with Mike Pettine and Dan Quinn, though we now know that Haslam and Banner had different ideas on whether to wait for Quinn.

So where does this leave the Browns? On the one hand, we have an owner that looks like a poor imitation of buffoons like Daniel Snyder. On the other hand, the revolving door of people running the Browns have somehow managed to leave the franchise in a position to improve dramatically heading into this offseason. Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert certainly made some mistakes, but they cleared out an old roster and started a youth movement while protecting the team’s cap situation, leaving the team with young stars like Josh Gordon, Jordon Cameron and Joe Haden. Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi spent more money but still have the Browns in a favorable cap situation with multiple picks in the first round following the Richardson trade. The team has some young stars and is poised to draft a potential franchise quarterback in a draft stacked with talent.

Now it’s up to Farmer and Pettine to take the next steps. Farmer is respected around the NFL, but he’s a first-time GM and he faces some huge decisions on resigning players and picking a quarterback. Then we’ll see if first-time head coach Pettine can take the team Farmer assembles and starts winning.

If the Browns hit on a good quarterback and Pettine turns out to be a good coach, fans will be able to laugh about the drama of the past several years. But if things don’t pan out, how can anyone have confidence that Jimmy Haslam can fix the situation? Let’s hope he’s found a GM and coach that can stay in the job for a while.

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Jason La Canfora needs a better editor

Jason La Canfora created quite a buzz in Cleveland last week with a column that basically ripped the personnel decisions of Tom Heckert. Here’s the most damning paragraph in the article.

So, while the previous brain trust in Cleveland — president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert — received praise (some in the local media took Heckert’s departure particularly personally), the reality is this: Aside from center Alex Mack and left tackle Joe Thomas, the new regime didn’t inherit one above-average offensive talent. No one has proven he is, as training camp looms, a standout skill player.

Yes, from a personnel standpoint, it really is that bleak.

On it’s face this quote seems ridiculous. When one considers whether a player has “talent,” most interpret that as having the physical tools and skills necessary to have significant upside in the sport. With that in mind, the young Browns offense is loaded with talent, with Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden, Mitchell Schwartz, Greg Little and Josh Gordon. Now, La Canfora can rightly point out that none of these guys are proven talents, but that’s not what he said in that blurb above.

Later in the article, he does address the players I mentioned. He calls Greg Little an “inconsistent but talented receiver.” He says that “Gordon clearly has talent.” So which is it? You can’t say they have no players beyond Mack and Thomas that are above-average talent players, and then turn around and point out that Little and Gordon have talent.

As for Richardson, sure there are questions about injuries and whether he was drafted too high at #3, but many pro scouts called him the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson. La Canfora may not agree with that, but his argument that Richardson isn’t even an “above-average talent” seems ridiculous.

He does lay out the challenges facing the Browns on offense, but he completely misses the mark on the nature of those challenges. The Browns have plenty of young talent. The key is developing that talent and overcoming the inconsistency issues that plague most young players. La Canfora is confusing the issues of talent and youth.

Reality setting in for new Browns regime regarding Weeden?

The news out of Berea has been much more encouraging lately with some of the statements coming from Joe Banner and Rob Chudzinski. Both seemed to make it clear that they saw some real positives with Brandon Weeden, and it appears Weeden will get every opportunity to win the starting quarterback job in the fall. They’re seeing what we all saw last year – a QB with a great arm that can make every throw, but also a rookie who made predictable mistakes. Many “experts” thought the Browns would be a complete mess last year, but they were in every game and often covered with Weeden keeping them close, so the sports betting world learned not to underestimate him.

Of course, they also challenged Weeden to step up and really work for it, and I have no problem with that at all. I also have no problem with them bringing in competition for him. For his part, Weeden is confident he will start and welcomes the competition.

Most fans and local writers seem to get this, and now the new regime seems to understand as well, though we still haven’t heard from Mike Lombardi. Chud and Norv Turner obviously saw all of this on tape, and hopefully they weren’t shy about letting banner and Lombardi know they had a guy that could run their offense. Banner seemed to state that the Browns will not waste the #6 pick on a QB, and that’s a very positive development. Of course Banner still needs to build some credibility with the media. He says he’ll never “lie” to the media, but do any of us think that his statements that Tom Heckert would be evaluated at the end of the year were honest? In hindsight, they had made up their mind, and the early rumors of Mike Lombardi were all true. Let’s hope this time he’s telling the truth.

There’s also the bizarre infatuation with the read-option that seems to unite Mike Lombardi and Joe Banner. Let’s hope this “trend” runs its course before these two shake up the QB position by trying to find running QBs.

Epic rant from Jim Nantz about the Browns and Mike Lombardi

Jim Nantz called in to the Bull and Fox show on 92.3 The Fan and delivered an epic rant about the new Browns organization. You can listen to it here.

His basic message was simple – Jimmy Haslam has assembled an impressive group of people to turn the Browns around, and that Browns fans will soon realize it as they get to work and start winning. He strongly defended his friend Mike Lombardi and took some tough shots at Tony Grossi without mentioning him by name regarding his harsh criticism of Lombardi.

Let’s consider some of the things Nantz said.

First, I agree with him that the overall team assembled by Haslam is impressive, and I’m optimistic about the future direction. This is coming from someone who thought Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert did a ton of the dirty work in turning around the franchise and were heading in the right direction despite some mistakes. Rob Chudzinski is an excellent coordinator, and he seems to have the charisma and leadership qualities necessary to make him a good head coach. I like Haslam’s general style and think he’s looking for the right qualities when considering head coached. Chud has also assembled a very impressive staff, with Norv Turner and Ray Horton leading the pack.

As for Mike Lombardi, I understand both the concerns expressed by people like Grossi along with the praise coming from people like Nantz. Still, Grossi’s comment on the radio the other day that Lombardi was not qualified for the job is ridiculous. People can question past draft picks but he’s certainly developed a resume that prepares him for this job. I also like the fact that Lombardi has been with the NFL Network for 5 years. Anyone with a brain would gain some excellent perspective from that job and would leave there knowing practically every coach and personnel guy in the league.

Also, it’s not like Haslam has handed Lombardi the keys to the organization. The biggest problem with Randy Lerner wasn’t necessarily the people he hired, but the total lack of oversight and accountability that existed after the introductory press conference. Guys like Butch Davis and Eric Mangini desperately needed a strong owner and GM to push back when their desire to control everything led to silly decisions. With Joe Banner and his “team” approach to decision making, no one person can make rash decisions without intense oversight, and you can bet Haslam will be in the room to make sure everyone knows they’ll have to answer for mistakes.

So I know Lombardi isn’t perfect, but I have no problem with a guy like him in the brain trust. Of course Jim Nantz is totally biased in arguing that Lombardi is a football genius. Nantz worships at the Bill Belichick alter, so he’s seems to see everything through that filter. Still, I’m more than comfortable giving Lombardi and the rest of the team a chance.

On the other hand, I think Nantz took some cheap shots at Tom Heckert. Of course Bull and Fox just gushed and didn’t push back on that, which is disappointing given that Heckert rebuilt an old, pathetic roster.

Now, there are legitimate debates on some of Heckert’s picks, and Nantz did raise good points as well. Taking Trent Richardson with the third pick after trading up is certainly debatable, as many believe drafting a running back that high is a mistake. Nance points out late round picks that did well, but pointing out a running back that scores touchdowns in the potent New England offense like Shane Vereen is ridiculous. The question is how would a guy like Vereen have fared with the Browns, who were desperate for some weapons on an offense that didn’t have a great quarterback. I think his point was more persuasive when he brought up Doug Martin who went to Tampa Bay. The Browns could have gotten him at the 22nd pick, and you could argue that young QB Ryan Tannehill at #4 and Martin at #22 would have been better than Richardson and a much older Brandon Weeden.

The real cheap shot was bringing up Russell Wilson, who was passed over by everyone and frankly dropped into the perfect situation. Wilson had a great first year, but he really didn’t flourish until Pete Carroll started running him, and that style of play doesn’t necessarily lead to long-term success.

These are all debatable points, and Nantz brings up a good point that Heckert’s record isn’t pristine. Still, he fairly noted that Richardson could be incredible under Norv Turner, and many think Weeden could flourish there as well. So it will take time to flush out Heckert’s record.

At least the Browns recognize that a foundation has been built, and hopefully the new brain trust can build on it. Overall, I’m glad to hear that Lombardi has guys like Nantz will to speak up on his behalf.

As for Tony Grossi, I understand his reservations, and it will be interesting to see how the soap opera plays out now with Lombardi, Grossi and Nantz. To his credit Grossi has said he’s giving Lombardi a clean slate. Let’s see if he lives up to it.

The emergence of Josh Gordon


Photo source: Browns Facebook page

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future for this young Browns team, and Josh Gordon certainly has emerged as a real weapon on offense. Tony Grossi elaborates on this in his latest column, where he also takes the opportunity to repeat his opposition to the absurd notion of having Mike Lombardi replace Tom Heckert.

Grossi points out that Lombardi mocked Heckert’s selection of Gordon in the supplemental draft, and Grossi is leading the charge for those of us who believe that Heckert has done an excellent job of rebuilding the Browns roster.

It will be fascinating to see if the reactions of Grossi, other writers in Cleveland and the fans will have any impact on decisions made by Joe Banner and new owner Jimmy Haslam regarding Heckert’s future. I’m taking them at their word, and assuming they will in fact wait until the end of the season to evaluate Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur.

Grossi has argued that there is little Heckert can do at this point to affect his status, and thus Banner and Haslam should have stated their intentions regarding the GM. I don’t buy that. First, they don’t want to treat Heckert any differently than Pat Shurmur in terms of deciding his future before the end of the season, so I don’t read anything into their silence. Also, Heckert is preparing for next year’s draft and free agency, so they are observing how he works in that lead role. And finally, Heckert’s resume evolves as young players like Gordon improve their performance through the season.

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