Inside Slant: Jimmy Haslam's homeless fan

May, 9, 2014
May 9
1:00
PM ET

Johnny Manziel-mania is well underway in Cleveland, and already it's fair to ask how badly the Browns wanted Manziel and how much they were seeking out the mania when making him the No. 22 overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft.

From a football standpoint, there is no arguing the Browns needed a fresh start at quarterback. You could debate whether Manziel was the best choice, but in terms of marketing, no player in the draft could have brought what Manziel already has showered on one of the NFL's most hapless franchises.

(Among the earliest indications: The Browns sold 1,500 season tickets within 12 hours after drafting Manziel, according to the ESPN's Darren Rovell.)

The Browns, of course, understood exactly how their fans would react. How do we know? In the hours leading up to the draft, owner Jimmy Haslam told ESPN's Sal Paolantonio about a recent night out for dinner in Cleveland. As he walked down the street, a homeless man recognized him, caught his attention and said: "Draft Manziel."

That encounter reminded Haslam how passionate Browns fans are and convinced him they wanted Manziel, Paolantonio reported.

What Haslam did with that information might never be fully understood. In the worst-case scenario, of course, an inexperienced owner ordered his football experts to draft a player based on fan reaction, marketing and gleeful exuberance that overwhelmed the clinical assessments required for all draft picks. Johnny Football will be an exciting player who generates public benevolence and makes the Browns a lot of money, after all, even if Johnny Manziel doesn't win them many games.

There is no evidence Haslam ordered general manager Ray Farmer to draft Manziel, and if you listen carefully to what Paolantonio reported, you realize that's not what Haslam conveyed in their conversation. (See the full transcript below.) At the same time, I think we should be realistic about the power of an NFL owner's personal opinion -- especially in an organization that has undergone as much turnover as the Browns in Haslam's two years of ownership.

It's clear Haslam loved the idea of drafting Manziel. And if he relayed his assessment of what Browns fans wanted to a reporter, surely he mentioned it to others as well. What does a good employee do when he knows what the boss wants? He makes it happen, ideally within the context of a broader convergence but on its own if necessary. Farmer, as it turned out, got it done only after making two moves that netted cornerback Justin Gilbert and extra picks. At the end of the night, Farmer made his owner very happy.

As Browns-like as it might sound, I don't think it's fair to say Manziel is in Cleveland because a homeless person suggested it to the owner. But I also think it's na´ve to believe Haslam didn't play a role in the final outcome. Owners usually get what they want -- one way or the other.

Note: Here is the full transcript of Paoalntonio's report:
"Jimmy Haslam, the owner of the team, I spent about 30 minutes with in his office today and we talked a lot about football. He said, 'You know what, I can go out to dinner anywhere in Tennessee and nobody bothers me.' That's his home state. But he said, 'Here in Cleveland, everywhere I go, people know me. I was out to dinner recently and a homeless person was out on the street, [he] looked up at me and said: Draft Manziel.' And that convinced him that the Cleveland Browns fans wanted Manziel."

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