Yet another franchise reboot—call it Browns 6.0—and yet more promises to build a contender in Cleveland. Why should we believe this time?
BEREA, Ohio — The latest rebuilding project of the Cleveland Browns started on the ground floor, literally. While the second floor of the team’s training facility was being revamped this offseason, players, coaches and staffers were relocated to the first floor and to trailers outside.
Considering the Browns have finished above .500 just twice since being reborn in 1999, haven’t won more than five games in a season since 2007 and last year got a new owner, Jimmy Haslam III, a wholesale remodeling of the franchise was in order. It will be up to CEO Joe Banner, who was installed by Haslam last October, to make sure the alterations are more than just cosmetic.
At least Banner has been through this before. In 1994 his friend Jeffrey Lurie purchased the Eagles and brought him into the front office. During Banner’s 17 years with Philly, 11 of them as team president, the Eagles made 11 playoff appearances and won eight NFC East titles. “I hate to say it, but the depth of the challenge is even greater here, from the football side to the business side,” Banner, 60, said in a rare one-on-one talk inside the Browns’ cafeteria last month. “There was less frustration in Philly, but there was frustration. They’d had some success, where here they really, really struggled. The plan wasn’t that different. I really started by dramatically changing who worked there.”
A year ago shock waves rippled through Philadelphia and the league when Banner stepped down as president of the Eagles. Lurie said the move was Banner’s idea, that he wanted a new challenge, but the popular perception was that Banner had lost a power struggle with coach Andy Reid and general manager Howie Roseman. In the aftermath of the shakeup, Banner was hired by Haslam to overhaul the Browns, signaling the end of Mike Holmgren’s reign as team president; the Eagles, meanwhile, finished 4-12, their worst record since 1998, and Reid was fired after 14 seasons.
Banner’s reputation inside league circles is one of a shrewd, calculating and patient businessman. He was instrumental in the Eagles’ ascent to becoming one of the NFL’s most respected and consistently successful franchises. The root of that came from Banner’s expertise with the salary cap. Philly was ahead of the curve in extending deserving young players before their contract was due to expire, usually at a big discount compared to the market rate. The Eagles were so disciplined with their cap that they rarely had to release a player due to money—it was almost always performance and/or age. But Banner’s steadfast belief in not overpaying for players past the age of 30 led to fan dissatisfaction when the team parted ways with several popular players, from Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor to Duce Staley and Brian Dawkins. While Banner has publicly expressed regret over the free-agent departure of Dawkins, a four-time All-Pro and the captain of the defense who went to the Broncos after 13 seasons, the Eagles hit on a lot more of those decisions than they missed. (Even Dawkins had just one good year in Denver on a five-year deal.) The chief criticism of Banner came from protracted contract battles (Terrell Owens, DeSean Jackson) and the belief that he was in control during questionable drafts in 2010 and ’11. The timing of Banner’s stepping aside in June 2012 seemed to make him the fall guy for the Eagles’ disastrous “Dream Team” of the previous season.
But with the Eagles, no one outside the franchise was sure who had final say over personnel. Banner said that was by design, although he was often seen by fans as the bad guy because he dealt with contracts. “It was fine for me to have that role; I felt it was in the best interest of the organization,” Banner said. “With Andy Reid, [then-personnel director] Tom Heckert, Howie, Jeffrey … it was pretty egoless group. The fact that people underestimated my involvement or my contributions was just because we chose to never talk about it. And that includes the mistakes and the successes. I was part of both.
“The truth is, it was collaborative although it was always real that Andy could veto. That’s not really how he functioned, though. In the end somebody has to have the ability to make a final decision, but if we were too divided we just didn’t do it. We felt, ‘We’re each pretty smart, so if we just do the things that we’ve have a general consensus for, our odds of being right are a lot higher than if we’re going the things we’re all unsure about or divided about.’ ”
The Browns will follow the same collaborative decision-making process, but make no mistake: The buck stops with Banner. “I do have a little more power in the sense that in Philly the head coach worked with me closely but was not a direct report to me, and he is here,” Banner said. “In the execution, that’s really not as big a difference as it sounds, but it is a difference. And if one was defining the extent of power [and] control—I hate to even use those words—there is a little bit of a difference.”
Everyone has a sense that we’re not waiting around for people. We’re going to live and die by how we play. —LB D’Qwell Jackson
You can see that approach in the way Banner went about filling out the organization: The depth of the challenge in Cleveland became a recruitment tool. “Off-the-field business, on-field performance, all of it—there’s a lot of room for growth,” Banner said of the Browns. “Some of the people from other organizations, I told them: ‘You can be part of one of the more conspicuous turnarounds that anyone has ever been a part of.’ ”
Banner said one of the top qualities he looks for is people who have an unusual drive to prove themselves. Probably better than most front-office executives in the NFL, he knows what that means. There are still those both in the game and outside it who won’t let Banner forget that he didn’t come from a football background—he was in the clothing business before joining the Eagles.
“For people who don’t have these traditional backgrounds, the threshold of proving yourself is a little bit higher and the skepticism is a little bit greater,” Banner said. “I’m trying to fill the building with people at all positions who have something to prove, so that they’re extra driven.”
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Banner’s first hire was Alec Scheiner as team president. He most recently had been the senior vice president and general counsel for the Cowboys; he had also been involved in Steve Biscotti’s purchase of the Ravens and the Hornets’ relocation to New Orleans in the NBA. Still, Scheiner has never been entrusted with this kind of power position before. While he’s the point man on renovations to FirstEnergy Stadium, Scheiner has been at Banner’s side throughout the reshuffling and restocking of the Browns.
For Banner, hiring former Panthers and Browns offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski as head coach came next—even before general manager. “This is going to be a hard way to say this, because some people will take it the wrong way: I think the coach is more important than the personnel guy,” Banner said. “I don’t think you can succeed without both of them being good, so it’s just to a degree. I wanted to make sure I had a clear path to attract the coach we wanted. I didn’t want him saying, ‘Well, I don’t like the personnel guy you just hired.’ I didn’t want to take that chance. I wanted to get the coach first, and although I wasn’t going to let the coach pick the other person, I wanted to make sure I felt they were compatible and they were the right fit in terms of the types of things they believed in.”
This is Chudzinski’s first head-coaching job, but as a Toledo native he’s familiar with his proving ground. “I’m from here; grew up a Browns fans,” said Chudzinski, 45, who was tight ends coach in Cleveland in 2004 under Butch Davis and offensive coordinator in ’07 and ’08 under Romeo Crennel. “I know what this team means to these people better than most.”
But Banner saved his most daring hire for last, when he pulled Michael Lombardi from the NFL Network studios to be the general manager. Lombardi had been the personnel director for the Browns and then-coach Bill Belichick when Art Modell relocated the franchise to Baltimore, so the mere mention of him as a candidate—let alone his actual hiring—stoked criticism from fans and the Cleveland media. Yet Banner proceeded.
“I’m not sure trepidation is the right word; it was certainly something I had to think through,” Banner admitted. “But my job is to try to do what I think in the end is what the fans want and what we all want—to win as many games as we can. I felt we had to put all that aside, and if Mike was the guy who I thought, in conjunction with myself and Chud, was going to give us the best chance to win, then I had to hire him and trust that [animosity] would resolve itself.
“I’m new here, Jimmy’s new here, so you want people to feel good about what you’re doing—I would have rather he’d be the favored choice,” Banner said with a laugh, “but in the end I decided it was more important to hire who I thought was going to make the biggest difference in the won-loss record.”
In a sense, Banner sees a lot of himself in Lombardi, whom he brought to Philadelphia first as a consultant in 1997 and then as director of pro personnel in ’98. Fans who have followed Banner look at his non-football background and some of the cold, calculated personnel decisions he made in Philadelphia, and aren’t enthused. Lombardi has a long track record of working with some of the brightest minds the game has seen—he was a scout for Bill Walsh’s 49ers and a personnel director with Belichick in Cleveland and Al Davis in Oakland—but is looked at as a talking head from TV land who never had final say when he was in the business.
“The similarity for me was Mike is perceived in a certain way by some people that I don’t think is an accurate reflection of either who he is as a person or his abilities in football,” Banner said. “That’s true about me too.”
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For Lombardi, walking back into the building that opened in 1991, Belichick’s first season as Browns coach, has been a bit strange. He’s heard from just about everybody who was on Belichick’s old staff, which produced nine future NFL head coaches and general managers. “I told Nick Saban [the defensive coordinator on those teams] I finally went into his office and was checking to see if there was still anybody left in the building breaking tape down from back in that era,” Lombardi said. “Being back in the league is tremendous, but being back here is even better because it really has a special place in my heart—and an incomplete place in my heart with the way things ended.”
On the football side, the Browns want to be aggressive in all phases of the game. That’s why the hiring of coordinators Norv Turner (offense) and Ray Horton (defense) and the decision to retain Chris Tabor (special teams) were viewed as major coups within the building and around the league. The players, including those who are going on their fourth coach in eight years, certainly took note.
“What’s new to me is I haven’t been around an offensive coordinator, defensive and head coach that want to attack,” said linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. “Everyone has a sense that we’re not waiting around for people. We’re going to live and die by how we play. We’re not going to let the offense dictate what we do on defense, and vice versa. That is what any player wants. You want to be able to be aggressive. As a defensive player, that’s the mentality you have and that’s how you want to play it.”
Everyone associated with the Browns realizes they’ll go as far as their quarterback takes them. Brandon Weeden, last year’s first round pick, and veterans Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer will be closely watched. That’s why Chudzinski was hired. “Everywhere he’s been he’s gotten the quarterback to play at a high level,” Lombardi said.
Being back in the league is tremendous, but being back here is even better because it really has a special place in my heart—and an incomplete place in my heart with the way things ended. —GM Mike Lombardi
In 2007, with Chudzinski as offensive coordinator, the Browns went 10–6. That year he coaxed a Pro Bowl season out of Derek Anderson. As coordinator in Carolina the past two seasons he helped hone Cam Newton. He knows there’s plenty of room for growth with the Browns’ trio. “In this league the quarterback’s the key, and I’ve been really pleased with the progress we’ve made this spring—a tremendous amount of improvement for all three guys,” he said during the team’s minicamp in June. “We have a good mix of young guys and veterans. Right now the chemistry in that room is really good. They’re on the right track but have a long ways to go. I do think we’re heading in the right direction.”
The new Browns, who are armed with $31.7 million in cap room, hope that’s the case overall. “Having cap room is a huge asset, so we’re going to make sure we protect our assets,” Lombardi said. “Just because you have it doesn’t mean you should spend it. Every decision you make, you have to be judicious in terms of value. You have to be careful—measure twice, cut once, and understand that that money can be used in the next seasons.”
The decisions the Browns make with that cap room will likely determine whether or not the team will need yet another reboot in the future. “Every year, no matter what your record is, you feel like you can win every game,” Jackson said. “This year has a different feel to it.”
Whether different means better remains to be seen. For one, Haslam’s potential indictment on federal fraud charges stemming from problems at his Pilot Flying J truck-stop chain company—seven employees have pled guilty to various charges—could cause things to come crumbling down, though camp was being conducted as usual on the football side.