AFC North: Jimmy Haslam

Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and his company, Pilot Flying J, took another step toward putting a federal criminal fraud investigation behind them.

The practical result of a criminal enforcement agreement between Pilot Flying J and the U.S. Attorney’s Office released Monday is that the company will pay a $92 million fine, continue to cooperate with the investigation, and make amends for cheating customers in the past.

The fallout may well indicate that Haslam will not be prosecuted, though that is not guaranteed.

When a company accepts responsibility in some investigations, it happens in lieu of prosecuting its leaders. Haslam has insisted all along he was unaware of the scheme, and he was embarrassed and sickened when he learned about it.

The U.S. Attorney’s statement says the agreement does not preclude any individual from being prosecuted in the future. It's unclear whether that means there are further targets or if the government is reserving its right to prosecute should the company not meet its obligations.

The agreement, signed Friday, was reached to resolve "the company's criminal liability for its employees' fraudulent conduct.”

The federal investigation found that Pilot Flying J had cheated customers out of more than $56 million in a rebate fraud scheme. The agreement states that Pilot Flying J has repaid or will repay all money. Ten employees -- some of them high-level -- cooperated and were convicted. Other top-level employees left Pilot Flying J.

Haslam released a statement saying he will be happy to put the entire episode behind him.

The investigation cost a lot of money (including untold amounts of attorney fees) and caused considerable angst in Cleveland and the NFL.

But it did not cost Haslam his company, and may not cost him an indictment.

Forbes lists Haslam’s net worth at $1.6 billion.

That was quick.

The Cleveland Browns didn’t need to think much at all about matching the offer sheet the Jacksonville Jaguars gave center Alex Mack.

They decided before the end of Friday to keep Mack with the Browns. Apparently, owner Jimmy Haslam meant it when he said the team had no intention of losing Mack. So the center will stay in Cleveland on a five-year deal, which he can void after two years, that will pay him $10 million, $8 million and $8 million the next three seasons -- all guaranteed.

Mack was either going to wake up rich in Cleveland or Jacksonville. As it turns out, he’s going to be rich with the team that drafted him.

He becomes the league’s highest-paid center, which the Browns accept. And they accept it because he’s been a good player for them for years, and because it continues a trend of keeping or adding players so the Browns can address the draft with the mindset of taking the best available player.

The Browns earned the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft by being a bad team in 2013.

They didn’t need to create more needs. They clearly believe they can swallow Mack’s cost and still extend the contracts of veterans like Joe Haden and Jordan Cameron and Josh Gordon. As long as that’s true, there’s no reason not to keep a player if they like him. And the Browns clearly like Mack.

A week of talk and chatter simply went in a circle and wound up where it started, with Mack as the Browns starting center in 2014.
When a head coach is hired before a general manager, the head coach usually wields the most influence with the team.

Think Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay. He was hired immediately after the Bucs fired Greg Schiano, and his imprint and approach will be all over the team. In the more extreme sense, think former coach Eric Mangini in Cleveland. He convinced former Browns owner Randy Lerner to hire George Kokinis as GM, then Mangini ran the team.

But with every rule there are exceptions, and thus it is with the Cleveland Browns of 2014, where neither the GM nor the coach will have the most influence with the team. That influence appears to be shared, with guidance coming from owner Jimmy Haslam.

[+] EnlargeRay Farmer
AP Photo/Tony Dejak"I will work in tandem with Coach Pettine to make sure we find the right players for him to succeed," GM Ray Farmer said.
GM Ray Farmer will be in charge of football operations, but he and coach Mike Pettine will share authority and work together in this latest incarnation of Browns' rebuilding. Farmer ultimately will be in charge of the 53-man roster and Pettine will be in charge of the roster on game days.

“(Picking players) will be a collaborative effort,” Haslam said. “I think that we’ve got a great group of scouts, and I think that Pett and his coaching staff -- we talked about this at dinner last night -- will participate, and I think that we’ll all work together to get the best players we can.”

It’s not an unusual setup. In fact, it’s very much like the setup in Pittsburgh, where GM Kevin Colbert handles personnel, Mike Tomlin handles coaching, and Art Rooney runs the team. Tomlin can go to Rooney at any point, and though Colbert has a lot of authority, it’s tough to call him Tomlin’s boss. The structure can work.

What is unusual is the timing. In most cases, the owner would want the new GM involved actively in choosing the new coach. That did not happen, through no fault of Haslam.

It seems the owner entered the coaching search without plans to make an overhaul. It actually seems that the coaching search contributed to the decision to make the overhaul.

Which means Farmer becomes GM at what could be an awkward time, but doesn’t have to be. And it doesn’t have to be if those involved don’t want it to be awkward, and don’t let it be awkward.

The job for Pettine and Farmer is to win. To set aside egos and win.

The way to win is for Pettine to let Farmer know what kind of players he wants, and for Farmer to find those players. That process has started.

“(Pettine) has already kind of set forward the players and how they kind of stack up for his scheme, the importance of one position versus another,” Farmer said. “As we work through those, I’ll get a better idea of what he needs to be successful.”

Pettine and Farmer have been impressive since being hired. Pettine is firm, straightforward and honest. Farmer has hit a lot of right notes in a couple of days since he was named GM. He’s personable, bright, answers a question, and does so without a lot of ego. He gets the idea of being on a team because he was a player, and seems to have a little something-something, a presence, that gives reason for hope. He’s also respected by many throughout the league.

None of that will draft a Pro Bowler or win a game, but it’s a good starting point.

In a recent radio interivew on 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland, Farmer was asked what kind of team he would build. He said tough, because that’s the kind of team Pettine wants to build.

Farmer said Tuesday that the Browns already have multiple draft boards, but they would change as he consults with coaches. He said the draft is about preparation, that by the time players are picked “the hay is in the barn.”

“It was explained to me that a general manager’s role is to ensure the success of his head coach,” Farmer said. “So I will work in tandem with Coach Pettine to make sure we find the right players for him to succeed.”

If that sounds like it had a good dose of humility, it’s because it did.
Jimmy Haslam’s remake (i.e. streamlining) of the Cleveland Browns front office was a major bombshell.

But according to league sources familiar with the way things went with the Browns in 2013, the decision was a culmination of Haslam, the Browns' owner, coming to grips with several factors, primarily that the structure CEO Joe Banner convinced him to build was not working.

Whether that was because of the personality of the people involved or because of the structure itself is a matter of opinion.

Haslam spoke highly of Banner even as he was announcing his departure.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Haslam
AP Photo/Tony DejakTrading star WR Josh Gordon would likely have been a PR disaster for the Browns and owner Jimmy Haslam.
“It’s been a pleasure to work with him,” Haslam said. He then called former general manager Mike Lombardi a great friend who has “great football acumen.” Haslam added that he and Banner had been discussing this streamlining for two weeks. It would be tough to find a higher road for the owner, which is admirable.

The sources said the change in the team’s structure with both coach Mike Pettine and new GM Ray Farmer reporting directly to Haslam is a fallout from the former system, which had everyone providing information to Banner.

The owner prefers more direct channels.

The sources also addressed several reports of what happened with the Browns last season:

• One source said Lombardi favored trading Josh Gordon. On the day Gordon was selected in the second round of the supplemental draft in 2012, Lombardi -- then an analyst with -- criticized the selection. Former coach Rob Chudzinski, aware his receiving corps would have been left with Greg Little and Davone Bess and who knows, worked hard to keep Gordon. Eventually, Banner did not like the offers he received. Gordon went on to lead the league in receiving yards. He averaged 97 yards per game before the trade deadline in late October, 133 after.

Lombardi would not comment on his position on Gordon, and declined comment on other matters related to the team and season. Chudzinski now works for the Indianapolis Colts, who make their assistants available only at certain times of the year. Now is not one of those times.

• Banner did not ask Chudzinski to cut Little and guard Shawn Lauvao. However, Banner’s personnel moves did leave Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner frustrated. Bess was brought in by Lombardi to be the dependable third-down guy. He was anything but. At one point the Browns had Bess starting ahead of Little, an indicator of the coaches’ frustration and “what are we supposed to do” thinking. There was ongoing frustration about the running back position. Farmer was asked Tuesday if Banner was a good judge of football talent, and he thought a moment before answering: “I could tell you that Joe is a football guy. He would classify himself as a non-traditional football guy, and I would say that is a good representation.”

• The only time the team seriously discussed acquiring a back after the Trent Richardson trade was when the possibility of trading Gordon was discussed. When Richardson was traded, there was no other immediate plan to acquire a back.

• Banner tried to exert control over much -- from personnel to offensive system, which galled the former coaching staff given the experience of Turner.

• The coaching staff considered the draft a near waste. Barkevious Mingo at the sixth pick was a situational pass-rusher, and Leon McFadden was drafted two rounds earlier than the team’s scouts projected. The team also traded two picks in 2013 for picks in 2014. Those picks will benefit the new coaching staff at the expense of the old. “Ridiculous,” said one NFL coach.

• The mesh between the scouts held over from former GM Tom Heckert to Lombardi was difficult. No scouts were in the Browns' draft room during the ‘13 draft. Many transitions with a front office and scouts are tough; this one seemed tougher.

• The free agents and acquisitions were much touted, but league insiders point out that only Paul Kruger started with his former team. Quentin Groves, Desmond Bryant and Dion Lewis were backups. Quarterback Brian Hoyer played well and earned the respect of everyone, but there were very few coaches in the league who saw him as a starter when the Browns acquired him.

• In the news conference after Chudzinski was fired, Banner called Groves, Bryant and Lewis “excellent additions.” Haslam sat to Banner’s left as he spoke. All six of the team’s Pro Bowlers, though, were brought in by either Heckert, Eric Mangini or Phil Savage.

• Haslam gained much of his insight on the team from Banner, who was the voice between Lombardi, the coaches and Haslam.

• There is a belief that Haslam’s eyes were opened to how his team was viewed around the league as the 25-day coaching search took place. In talking with people from other teams, Haslam learned firsthand of the reluctance of some coaches to work in the Browns' old structure, and of the difficulty in dealing with the Browns in terms of trades. Peter King wrote on that the first question Ken Whisenhunt asked when the Browns interviewed him this year was why he was not hired a year ago. Banner told Whisenhunt he did not believe Whisenhunt was putting together a championship staff. “Who are you to tell me what makes up a championship staff?” Whisenhunt snapped.

• It may have meant something or nothing, but one of the last things Haslam said Tuesday was: “I think we got the best coach we could get.”

Piece everything together and it’s evident why Haslam preferred a more streamlined operation.

He wants people working together, reporting to him, with no filter between the voices.

The structure seems almost as clear as the reasons that prompted it.
Jimmy Haslam, Joe Banner and Mike LombardiAP Photo/Mark DuncanBrowns owner Jimmy Haslam, right, is parting ways with Mike Lombardi, center, and CEO Joe Banner.
BEREA, Ohio -- If what Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam did on Tuesday was streamlining, it would be downright frightening to see his overhaul.

The coffee cups might not even be safe.

Haslam blew up not only his front office structure on Tuesday, but also blew out the people he initially hired to run it. CEO Joe Banner will transition out of the front office over the next two months, and general manager Mike Lombardi is gone. Both were said to be shocked at the moves, though Haslam said he and Banner discussed streamlining the team’s structure two weeks ago. If those realities sound implausible, well ... hey ... it’s the Browns.

Ray Farmer is the new GM, promoted from assistant GM. Alec Scheiner becomes a true president, in charge of business operations with no CEO over him.

They, along with coach Mike Pettine, will report directly to Haslam.

Haslam chose not to dump dirt on the folks who are leaving, praising them effusively for the jobs they did and thanking them over and over. But it’s pretty clear the NFL-arranged marriage between Haslam and Banner didn’t work, and Haslam wanted to regain charge of his team.

He called it a streamlining that he and Banner discussed and agreed to, which would make it one of the few times in history that an NFL CEO streamlined himself out of a job.

Haslam explained it by saying Banner was adept at building a new organization, and he had done that. His work in Cleveland, evidently, was over.

“Jimmy just corrected a mistake,” one league coach said.

Haslam spoke in his news conference in a way that would have made the governor of Tennessee proud, a man who just happens to be Haslam’s brother.

But this streamlining sure seemed to carry a ton of accountability with it. Though Haslam again denied there is a negative public perception of the Browns, there is no denying the team has been buffeted about in heavy seas without a sail in recent months.

[+] EnlargeRay Farmer
AP Photo/Tony DejakRay Farmer was named Cleveland's GM on Tuesday.
There were puzzling personnel decisions during the season, the distasteful leaks as Rob Chudzinski tried to coach the season finale, Norv Turner’s emotional reaction to the coaching change (the thought alone of Turner being let go by the Browns is mind-boggling), the Davone Bess trade and contract extension, followed by his bizarre behavior after the season and his even more bizarre tweets and news that he had similar issues prior to his trade.

There was the extended coaching search, with coaches declining to take the job -- including Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen. Wisconsin admitted Tuesday that he had interviewed but decided to stay with the Badgers.

There was Josh McDaniels pulling out, after Chip Kelly chose Philadelphia over Cleveland a year ago, after Nick Saban chose not to interview. Their common denominator is they were all said to be in Lombardi’s circle.

There was more, and as time goes on more will come out. Banner always ran a team with a firm hand, leading, some said, by fear and intimidation. It can work, but it wasn’t popular. At last year’s draft, the team scouts rated cornerback Leon McFadden as a fifth- or sixth-round pick, and the Browns took him in the third round. Future draft picks were traded away. Tony Grossi reported on ESPN-850 radio in Cleveland that he spoke with two NFL insiders at the Super Bowl, two Lombardi guys, and they both said Banner was to blame for what was wrong in Cleveland, that Banner was calling the shots.

Banner was deep into analytics, numbers, while old-time football guys would favor old-time scouting. Lombardi perfected the “box test,” which supposedly tested player agility. Old-time football guys favor how a guy tackles and closes on receivers. Lombardi never met with the media, a decision made by Banner, who handled personnel questions and decisions.

Asked if Banner was a good judge of football talent, Farmer said this: “Joe is a football guy. He would classify himself as a non-traditional football guy, and I’d say that’s a good representation."

Banner did secure $30 million in funding from the city of Cleveland for stadium renovations, and he did bring Farmer to Cleveland from Kansas City and juggled titles so Farmer could join the team.

But the Browns did not resemble a team working together. In the past month they resembled a team eating its own, with folks struggling to protect their fiefdoms.

An owner who came from the Steelers' tradition had to look at his structure and wonder what was happening. Because hiring a coach into the same structure was not going to change the operation.

Haslam now has taken a drastic step ... err ... has streamlined to put a guy in charge who garners near universal respect around the league. Farmer hit all the right notes in his news conference, saying “It’s time to make people proud of the Browns again.” That won’t help him select a quarterback, but there almost seemed to be a breath of relief from the fandom following these changes.

A business guy is running business.

A football guy is running football.

A coach is coaching.

All report to the owner.

Imagine that. A respected longtime football guy running football. As anyone in Cleveland can attest, it doesn’t guarantee wins. But it’s something.

For team and a fan base that has had little reason for optimism the past many years, something is meaningful.

Haslam: Browns would welcome Sam

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
The Cleveland Browns would welcome Michael Sam to the team.

That's the word from Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, who released a statement one day after Sam, who played at Missouri and was the SEC's co-Defensive Player of the Year, publicly acknowledged he is gay.

Sam could be the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL.

Haslam's complete statement:

“Absolutely we would welcome Michael Sam to the Cleveland Browns organization if he can help us win games and is the right football player for this team. We are intent on creating an environment that is supportive, accepting and respectful of individual rights and differences.”
Jimmy Haslam and Joe Banner addressed the perception Thursday that the Cleveland Browns did not have a plan when they conducted their coaching search that resulted in the hiring of Mike Pettine.

They had a plan, they said. Their plan was simply different from most.

“We’re going to spend thousands of hours researching whether to pick a quarterback in the draft or not,” Haslam said. “Why would you not spend a lot of hours researching who the head coach of your organization is going to be?

“This thought that the first person to finish the coaching search is the winner I think is extremely far-fetched. This is an important hire. To not take your time and talk to people and do the research, the background checks we’ve done I think would be inexcusable.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Haslam
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports"This is an important hire. To not take your time and talk to people and do the research, the background checks we've done I think would be inexcusable," Jimmy Haslam said.
“We think it was a great process.”

Haslam went as far as to say the Browns did not start with a first choice or lead candidate, but went in ”with a wide-open field.”

“This is a fluid process,” he said, “and it changes all the time.”

Many teams do their coaching search by choosing one or two candidates, then zeroing in on them immediately and hiring them quickly. The Browns chose to cast a wide net, talk to as many people as possible and talk to many candidates. They acknowledge that Pettine was available immediately, but saw no rush to interview him when they knew he’d still be available in mid-January.

Haslam said the team interviewed 10 people in person, and a few others on the phone.

The time it took to hire a coach, though, and the Browns' decision to keep the search secret, led to a lot of reports, some of them inaccurate. A source familiar with the search said the Browns had no interest in hiring Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, Penn State’s James Franklin or Bill O’Brien, formerly of Penn State and now with the Texans. (O’Brien reportedly left his interview with the Browns a year ago unimpressed with the team.)

Those names were widely reported as part of the search.

There are many different ways to hire a coach. The Baltimore Ravens did extensive research on John Harbaugh before hiring him. Haslam and Banner chose to go the in-depth route.

“With Mike we spent four or five hours twice, we spent another hour (Thursday),” he said. “These are exhaustive sessions when you ask all kinds of intense questions. They ask us very good questions. You tell a lot about the candidate by the questions they ask. There’s not one moment, it’s over a period of time. These are extremely important hires, so to rush into it in any way would be a huge mistake.”

There’s no escaping the fact the Browns did not rush into anything. Haslam said any negative perception generated by the search was caused by the media.

“This perception that’s been created out there is not reality,” he said.

Banner said fans and media have “no idea” who the candidates were and who wanted the job, but he declined to clear up misconceptions.

The pair felt the Browns had a plan all along. It was a unique plan, one that isn’t always followed, but they felt it was a plan that didn’t deserve the “pummeling” (Banner’s words) that the team received.

“I’ll take the ultimate responsibility that we did not perform last year,” Haslam said. “It’s all on me. I call all the shots at the end of the day. That’s all on me. We’re highly focused on putting together a team that will win consistently over a long period of time.”
BEREA, Ohio -- The first thing CEO Joe Banner said when he spoke at the news conference to introduce Mike Pettine as the Cleveland Browns' 15th head coach was a Three Stooges joke.

And it was funny.

“Since Mike Lombardi and I were Moe and Larry, we set out to find Curly, and we succeeded,” Banner said Thursday.

He referred, of course, to the infamous question at the Dec. 27 news conference where Rob Chudzinski’s firing was discussed, when a Cleveland-area TV reporter asked owner Jimmy Haslam to promise the fans the Three Stooges were not running the team.

[+] EnlargeMike Pettine
AP Photo/Tony DejakNew coach Mike Pettine will be looking to end Cleveland's skid of six straight seasons with 11 or more losses.
That was 25 days ago, and Banner was able to laugh about it -- even though an exhaustive search had the Browns taking barbs from everyone from the NFL Network to Deadspin to Jay Leno. Banner referred to it as a “pummeling.”

“It never burnt,” Banner said of the Stooges question. “It didn’t feel justified.”

Then he chuckled.

“But there’s still humor in it,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with being able to poke a little fun at yourself from time to time.”

Pettine comes from the Buffalo Bills, and Banner said he, like everyone else the team interviewed, asked the Browns about job security in light of Chudzinski getting just one season. Banner said the team explained its thinking to everyone.

“It’s not unnerving,” Pettine said.

He said it with quiet force.

“Sometimes it’s the cockiness of a coach, but I’ll always bet on myself,” he said. “I don’t want to back away from a job because of a perceived lack of security.”

Banner said the Browns had Pettine on their radar for the defensive coordinator spot a year ago, but he chose to go to Buffalo. The Browns' CEO said it didn’t matter that Pettine was the sixth or seventh person to interview, that the schedule came down to logistics, who was where and who was working.

Pettine promised a mentally tough team that would not fall into old traps of thinking “same old Browns.” He promised players would be held accountable. He said he’d adjust his systems to the personnel, not force personnel into a system.

And he said he’s a pretty straightforward guy who isn’t afraid to be critical. He even admitted his nickname at one point was BFT -- Blunt Force Trauma.

“The days are too short to dance around subjects,” he said. “I think guys appreciate that. You have to do it in ways that are not demeaning. You can’t be that way as a coach anymore. It can’t be that military-type model.

“I think you have to understand we’re all in this together.”

Which means Pettine enters the same player personnel structure as a year ago, with Ray Farmer and Lombardi providing input on personnel and Banner making the final decisions. Banner said that system won’t change.

But Pettine also enters an environment when the perception of the Browns is not great -- with six seasons in a row of at least 11 losses and a coaching search that Banner admitted was so exhaustive it “caused people to question and wonder.”

“We wouldn’t have wanted to take 10 more days of pummeling,” Banner said.

Banner said the pummeling was “not pleasurable” and was “somewhat unjustified” while still admitting that he understood the questions and skepticism about firing a coach after one season.

“It wasn’t fun,” Banner said. “And it was also hard to not be in a position to respond to it.”

Haslam said he never watches TV, so he didn’t know the Leno jokes.

“I think that’s a perception that you all have generated,” he said to the media. “That’s not the perception among the candidates. That’s not the perception among football people I’ve talked to around the country.”

Haslam also said the Browns might never have had a first choice.

“You have a list of individuals we were going to talk to,” he said. “This is a fluid process and it changes all the time.”

Pettine was just glad the process ended with him. The son of a high school coaching legend in Philadelphia, a guy hired by Brian Billick in Baltimore and Rex Ryan in New York, he was just happy for the chance because he believes in the people who hired him and he believes in himself.

“There’s only 32 of these jobs in the world and these opportunities don’t come along often,” Pettine said. “People ask me, ‘Why didn’t you wait? There will be chances next year.’ I don’t know if I believe in that. When you put all the factors together, this franchise is in position, given the right leadership, to win.”
At the risk of developing a relationship with everyone in the Twitter-sphere -- admit it, it's a scary thought -- today marks the debut of the (drum roll, please) Browns Mailbag, named partly in honor of David Letterman.

Post your Browns questions on Twitter. Just send them to me @PatMcManamon with #BrownsMail on the post. I'll sort through and find the best and give as honest an answer as I can, time and space and legalities permitting. Your tweets will be embedded in the post, so please, keep them appropriate.

This wouldn't be me if I were entirely serious, so quirky questions are welcome, provided they pass the personal taste test, standards enacted by Sir Laurence Olivier and me.

On to the first edition of the (drum roll, please) Browns Mailbag.

Jim Tressel finally addressed the Cleveland Browns' head coach opening, and while he said he has had no contact with the team he also said: “It doesn’t mean that I don’t have any interest in the NFL.”

Tressel, the former wildly popular and successful Ohio State coach, is a vice president at the University of Akron. The Browns have not contacted him, and have shown no interest in doing so. A quick rumor last week that Tressel would interview was quickly defused.

[+] EnlargeJim Tressel
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJim Tressel coached 10 seasons at Ohio State and won a national title in 2002.
But that hasn’t stopped fans who still like and respect Tressel from wishing he were a candidate for the Browns.

Tressel spoke on the Bishop & Rothman show on 97.1 The Fan in Columbus to promote an autograph appearance he will make at a Memorabilia Show called the Midwest Sports Spectacular.

“I have not had discussions with Cleveland,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that I don’t have any interest in the NFL or anything. I don’t want to paint that picture. But at this point in time I have not.”

Tressel grew up in Berea, where the Browns train. He coached Youngstown State to four national titles before going to Ohio State, where he won one national title and played for two more. He left in the wake of an NCAA investigation and spent one year working for the Indianapolis Colts as the team’s “replay coach” in the booth.

“I really did enjoy that year I spent at Indianapolis ... ” he said. “I had never really experienced NFL from the inside. I always looked at it being from the college sector that it was different and maybe you couldn’t have the impact on the young people like you could in college and whatnot. And really I learned that good coaches like Jim Caldwell and a lot of folks in the league not only win games and draw Xs and Os, but they really do a good job of helping people in the early portions of their lives. I enjoyed it.”

Tressel talked about living in the moment and being happy at Akron, but also said he watches bowl games and the NFL playoffs avidly.

“I don’t know if you love football how your blood couldn’t boil if you’re watching football at this time of year,” he said.

He concluded his Browns-related discussion by saying there were plenty of job changes in college and the NFL.

“I think it’s going to be an interesting time here in the next few weeks, next month,” he said, “and I wouldn’t count anything out.”

The Browns have focused their search on NFL assistant coaches and coordinators. But the fans are well aware that Browns owner Jimmy Haslam talked about wanting to hire a “proven winner.”

Those same have not forgot Tressel’s 106-22 record at Ohio State, especially these three.
Cleveland Browns CEO Joe Banner said at the team’s last news conference that he understood the feelings of the team’s fans.

“We’re not in their shoes,” Banner said as he explained the firing of Rob Chudzinski. “We haven’t experienced it all. So in reality, I can’t tell you that we know exactly how they feel, but we certainly have a sense of it.”

If he has a sense, then he’ll know that fans have gone beyond being disappointed or frustrated.

The fans have spoken the past week, and one clear feeling comes through: disgust.

And it’s been seen in many ways and places.

There was the very public question to Haslam about whether the Three Stooges were running the Browns. That question followed Dan DeRoos of 19 Action News reading comments from the station’s Facebook page, all of which ridiculed the Browns.

DeRoos said the statements were a fair example of what the station had heard since Chudzinski was fired, and as he read the comments, it prompted Haslam’s expressions to change several times in what looked like uncomfortable ways.

On Sunday, DeRoos told the Akron Beacon Journal that the reaction he’s heard since he asked the question has been “overwhelming positive,” with nine of 10 thanking him for being the voice of the fans.

DeRoos shrugs off criticism of the professionalism of the question, saying he was speaking for the fans and because he was a news reporter, he had nothing to fear in asking.

His selection of comments did reflect the overwhelming opinion that fans seem to share. Several letters to the Cleveland Plain Dealer have been critical of the team, and a letter to the Akron Beacon Journal on Jan. 2 pointed out Chuck Noll went 1-13, 5-9 and 6-8 his first three seasons.

[+] EnlargeRob Chudzinski
Winslow Townson/USA TODAY SportsMany fans do not believe Rob Chudzinski was given a fair opportunity to turn the Browns around.
Plain Dealer editorial cartoonist Jeff Darcy also has had fun, with a drawing about “Bannardi Time” in which Haslam scolds Baby New Year. Darcy printed the cartoon he drew a year ago making what he thought was a sarcastic reference to Chudzinski getting at least two years.

And yes, less than a week after the news conference, a Cleveland T-shirt company called Teespring had a “Three Stooges” shirt for sale.

None of this involves scientific study or polling, of course. But gauging reactions isn't tough in this case -- the feeling is decidedly one-sided.

In the end the move may become popular with fans. A few winning seasons, after all, go a long way. If that happens, Banner and Haslam can stand on their decision.

But at the moment, the Browns have a large public relations problem on their hands.

It’s not all this management team’s making, of course. They’ve only been around for one 11-loss season. But they also can’t divorce themselves from the past.

Purchasing the team means purchasing all that goes with it, from the good memories of Jim Brown and Otto Graham and the 1964 title to the many bad ones since 1999.

It doesn’t help a lot when Haslam defends the move as “expensive.” It was, of course, but it wasn’t like fans petitioned him to spend $10.5 million to fire a coach. Too, fans know how lucrative it is to own an NFL team, and proportionally speaking, the fans have shelled out a good portion of their income to watch losing teams.

While a few may agree it was the right move, hardly anybody agrees it was a fair move. And Cleveland is the kind of area where fair still matters.

Haslam rightly referred to people being skeptical, and the team deserving all of it.

But in this instance fans have gone through skepticism with the speed of a luge on a straightaway. They are sick and tired, and it almost seems that they are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

As the Browns rebuild the coaching staff and the team, they also have much work to do toward winning back the goodwill of a fan base that in the past six years has had its exceptional loyalty rewarded with little more than empty promises and words.
One of the many points of contention in the Joe Banner-Jimmy Haslam press conference explaining the firing of Rob Chudzinski was whether the Browns were focused on winning in 2013, or building for 2014 and beyond.

To think a team would intentionally lose is silly. No team makes moves to lose. But a team can have a focus that says it understands it’s not an immediate playoff team, and build for the future.

By not adding any significant additions to the offense other than Brian Hoyer (who played well, but was a late addition in the offseason) and by trading for future draft picks, the Browns sent the message they were building for the long-term.

[+] EnlargeRob Chudzinski
David Richard/USA TODAY SportsLess than a year after introducing Rob Chudzinski, left, as his next head coach, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is looking for Chudzinski's replacement.
As far back as March, Haslam said this: “We’ve won 23 games in the last five years, won 14 games in the last three, so we’re not going to go 13-3 next year.”

At the same time, he also said the goal was “only to improve.”

“What’s the definition of improve?” he said. “I think we’ll all know. ... I think by Dec .30 or 31 we’ll all know if we’re a better football team.”

The lack of improvement was cited as the main reason a change was made.

Which begs the question: Did the Browns fade as the season went on because the coaching was lacking, or did they fade because the front office did not give the coaches the tools and personnel necessary to improve?

Clearly the coaches would argue the guys they were given were lacking, and it’s the reason offensive coordinator Norv Turner asked what happened to the long-term build the coaches were sold when Banner and Haslam met with the coaches.

Offensively, three quarterbacks started, as did five running backs. There was no dependable and productive second or even third receiver. Davone Bess was acquired and given a new contract. Turner talked all season about the patchwork approach he had to take -- and how he had to depend on asking guys like Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden to throw excessively.

Defensively, the Browns did acquire new players in Paul Kruger, Desmond Bryant, Quentin Groves, and draft picks Barkevious Mingo and Leon McFadden. None were impact players. Kruger and Bryant are solid, but they were backups for their former teams who were made rich and starters in Cleveland. Groves is a backup, Mingo has room to grow, and McFadden was a big disappointment.

The Browns did have five Pro Bowlers and one alternate in Joe Haden, Alex Mack, Joe Thomas, Josh Gordon, and Jordan Cameron. T.J. Ward was the alternate. Banner referred to the Pro Bowlers as a “strong nucleus” to sell to a new coach.

The common denominator for all six: They became Browns before Haslam bought the team. This would no doubt be a key point for the coaching staff: The players acquired since Banner took over were not key contributors, the holdovers were.

Clearly Banner and Haslam feel the issue was coaching. If they didn’t, they would have kept Chudzinski. But Banner also is not going to sit and admit that any of his decisions were wrong at an explosive news conference with his boss sitting next to him. He made a pretty impassioned defense of personnel moves, and directly challenged the notion that the Browns were geared toward the future by mentioning his free agent signings.

“We were one of the most active teams in free agency in the entire NFL,” Banner said. “That’s not something geared toward 2014; it’s geared toward making progress and improving as the season went on.”

The Browns did add players, but nobody can say there was a difference-maker brought in. Banner then said the personnel moves needed to “be judged over time.”

“I’m very optimistic that over time, whether we are dealing with undrafted free agents, the players we claimed or the free agents we signed, that it will prove to have been a year in which we moved the needle forward in terms of the talent level on the team," he said.

Which pretty obviously means the personnel side gets the time the coaches did not. This also came up when Banner discussed injured players.

“I think there are a lot of names we could add to the list if you talk about some of the people who got injured. The (Brian) Hoyers, Dion Lewises, Desmond Bryants, (Quentin) Groves,” he said. “Some of those I think were and will prove to be excellent moves.”

The jury is out on Hoyer, who played very well. But there are very few personnel folks in the NFL who would call the other additions “excellent.” Nor would they say Kruger was “excellent.”

And Haslam added this:

“I think that we said all along that we felt like the draft of 2013 did not compare to the draft of 2014. We like the talent in the draft of 2014. We have 10 picks: two firsts, a second, two thirds and two fourths. We think that free agents, both free agents we signed and free agents we’ve picked up along the way, have considerable talent and ability. Do I think we’re where we need to be talent-wise now? No, I don’t. Do I think we can get there over the next couple three years? Yes, I do.”

On one level the statements are a logical defense of a team’s moves. On the other though, they clearly indicate that there is a feeling that everything the front office did was right and just about everything the coaches did was wrong. And the focus for the future seems clear -- with Haslam calling this offseason “the crucial offseason for the Cleveland Browns.”

Yet with this crucial offseason looming, the coaching staff was fired. Which Haslam admitted made it even more crucial.

Which indicates a deeper disconnect between front office and coaching staff existed than anyone really understood.
One year ago, one of the first coaches the Cleveland Browns interviewed to be the team's head coach was Ray Horton.

Horton was the defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals. By all accounts he was an upright, honest guy, and a good coordinator who used a pressure 3-4 defense. He was also a minority, which matters in the NFL, which mandates minority interviews with the Rooney Rule.

[+] EnlargeTodd Bowles
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesThe Cleveland Browns are interviewing Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
One year later the Browns are about to interview another defensive coordinator from the Arizona Cardinals. He is an upright, honest guy, and a good coordinator who used a pressure 3-4. And yes, he also is a minority.

Todd Bowles by almost any account is highly thought of and a good coach. He spent time in Cleveland in the Butch Davis years, then worked in Dallas, Miami and Arizona.

He's respected, a good guy and a good coach.

Much like Horton.

In what could be the first of its kind, Joe Banner and Jimmy Haslam are about to follow their interview of a defensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals by interviewing another one one year later (assuming the blizzard that hit Cleveland on Thursday doesn't close the airport).

Bowles' positives are similar to Horton's, though he might not be as up-front with the media as Horton was. But he's a hard-worker, knows the game and has learned under some good people -- including Bill Parcells.

Bowles will be the second coach to interview. The Browns started on the defensive side of the ball by talking first to Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.

New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels interviews Saturday.

McDaniels would seem to be the frontrunner, but some in the league wonder if McDaniels and Banner can co-exist with Banner making final decisions on personnel.

Bowles is a strong candidate and probably deserves a head coaching job.

If it doesn't work out in Cleveland, he will have other options. He has an interview scheduled in Minnesota, and is believed to be interviewing in Detroit as well.
Owner Jimmy Haslam talked about hiring a proven winner to replace Rob Chudzinski, so it was odd when the first names that surfaced in the Cleveland Browns' coaching search were coordinators.

Then on Sunday,'s Jason La Canfora reported that the Browns were interested in two college coaches: Auburn's Gus Malzahn and Vanderbilt's James Franklin. These names could fall under the category Haslam described.

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
AP Photo/Dave MartinThe Browns are reportedly interested in Gus Malzahn, who led Auburn to the BCS title game in his first season as head coach.
Malzahn's name is interesting. He's this year's Chip Kelly, the guy the Browns did not get a year ago. That failure stung, especially after Kelly initially indicated he'd return to Oregon but then joined the Eagles and led them to the playoffs. The timing isn't good for Malzahn, who is preparing his Auburn team to play Florida State in the national title game. But if Malzahn's goal is to be in the NFL, the timing won't matter.

Malzahn was Cam Newton's offensive coordinator when the Tigers won the national title. He spent a year as head coach at Arkansas State before returning to be the head coach at Auburn this season. Like Kelly, he has been tied to the read-option offense.

Franklin is a former Packers assistant who had success in one of the toughest places in the SEC to have success, Vanderbilt. He has also been rumored to be on the list of other NFL teams with openings, and his name has been floated in relation to Penn State, which needs a coach after Bill O'Brien left for the Houston Texans.

The college names are interesting, because it's tough for NFL coordinators to have proven records of winning. College head coaches can.

While most in the league shook their head at the firing of Chudzinski after one season, almost as many are interested to see who is hired. In the structure the Browns have, Banner is in charge of football and personnel. A coach would have to accept that structure.

Other names that have surfaced include:

New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. At first glance McDaniels would seem to be a front-runner. He's from Northeast Ohio and went to college at John Carroll in suburban Cleveland. But sources have said Banner must be convinced, and that could be a challenge. McDaniels would seem to want control over personnel the way Belichick has it in New England. Given the Browns structure, that demand might be tough to meet.

Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Good guy, respected coach. He worked for the Browns from 2001 to 2004 as defensive backs coach before moving on to the Cowboys, Dolphins, Eagles and Cardinals, where he was Bruce Arians' choice to coach the defense. It's tough to find anyone who will say much negative about Bowles. He also would fill the league's Rooney Rule mandate.

Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. He will also interview with the Vikings. Under Quinn this season, Seattle led the NFL in points allowed, yards allowed, passing yards allowed and interceptions. He spent two years as the Florida Gators' coordinator, and has been an assistant with several NFL teams.

Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase. Every year there's a young coordinator who garners attention. It appears this year it's Gase, who had the benefit of working with Peyton Manning. That sure helps a coach look good, but it also helps a coach gain knowledge. Don't discount the recommendation Manning may have given on behalf of Gase; Manning and Haslam are friends. Gase, though, could hurt his chances by deciding not to interview until the Broncos' postseason run is over. It's an admirable stance, but the Browns may not wait.