A little less than 13 months after this picture was taken, Joe Banner (left) and Mike Lombardi (center) are out in Cleveland. (Mark Duncan/AP)
What’s going to be lost in the recent news the Cleveland Browns fired CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi is that in a vacuum this move was actually a good one. Banner showed bad judgment in his last years in Philadelphia, and that didn’t stop when he got to Cleveland. He whiffed on trying to hire now-Eagles coach Chip Kelly. He gave Rob Chudzinski a big contract, but never seemed to give him enough rope to operate autonomously (and he was fired just over a year later). And he hired a retread like Lombardi who was never going to be successful in Cleveland in the first place.
In cleaning out the front office Tuesday, the Browns admitted they displayed that same bad judgment by pairing Banner and Lombardi in the first place a year ago, but Haslam is still figuring things out as he goes along. As he said in his press conference Tuesday, "There is no primer for being an NFL owner." New owners get their advice from all over the place. They don’t typically have the experience of knowing just what goes into running a successful franchise. They buy a team, say "we want a winner" three times in front of a mirror hoping "culture change" will come up behind them and give them a big hug.
There’s a big disconnect between new uniforms or stadium improvements or renaming your field and actually bringing about success. Especially if you’re a team as dysfunctional as the Browns.
Look up and down that roster and you’ll see shell shock. These are guys who aren’t necessarily bad players, but ones who are used to losing and watching off-field issues from the ones in charge transcend the games themselves. To be a coach in Cleveland means you rent, you don’t buy. You get carry-out, you don’t become a regular. You invest in satellite radio because local sports talk will never give you the peace you want when you’re traversing roads that haven’t been plowed well enough.
There’s little doubt that Haslam wants the Browns to win football games. You don’t make an investment like that and fulfill some sort of dream of owning a pro sports team just to hope the team you buy makes you some cash and you get to shake hands with other rich people. There are plenty of other businesses that are easier and less scrutinized. But coming from a tiny stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers and the sheltered college world in Knoxville didn’t prepare Haslam for what Cleveland really is.
That’s not to say there isn’t a proud tradition in Northeast Ohio. There is. But there simply being devoted fans and a storied history doesn’t make this an easy fix. And that might be something Haslam wasn’t really prepared for. Putting Banner and Lombardi in place was evidence of that. In theory hiring a guy who understood the business of football and wasn’t afraid to make tough decisions and a "well-connected," "well-liked around the league" general manager may have made sense on the surface, but those two were never going to see eye to eye. Whether he deserved to be there or not, you can’t hire a GM then tell him he has no power. It’s going to make him mad. It’s some kind of Milgram Experiment gone terribly wrong.
Had Haslam cleaned house after Rob Chudzinski was fired in the first place, people wouldn’t be laughing about the Browns (okay, they would still be laughing, but not as much in the middle of February). This move, coming right after a coaching search that looked like a punchline, screams disaster and impatience. Which takes away from the fact Haslam might finally have a streamlined operating staff -- a bright up and comer in president Alec Scheiner and a general manager in Farmer who turned down the Dolphins to stay with Cleveland -- to finally go along with all those precious picks and cap dollars Banner and Lombardi were stockpiling.
What the Browns lack, and what they’ve continued to lack, is a cohesive vision. You can’t turn a franchise around on hopes, harkening to the past and wanting something really badly.
The timing of this move isn’t ideal, but that’s common with bad football teams. And the Cleveland Browns are a bad football team. The good news is firing Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi doesn’t make them any worse.