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Friday, January 3, 2014
Was the focus 2013, or the future?

By Pat McManamon

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.

Rob Chudzinski
Less 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.