The Cleveland Browns are changing identities again.
For those who feel the team was on the cutting edge of something great, swinging head-turning trades and stockpiling valuable draft picks, bemoan the death of analytics in football (RIP: 2016-17). For those who hated the idea of a Harvard-educated troika running a football operation, signaling a potential Moneyball-esque revolution in the NFL, dust off your notepad full of tired scouting platitudes and head to your nearest message board or comments section. Today is your day to shine.
That’s not the point, although the NFL world will use Cleveland’s firing of executive vice president Sashi Brown and retention of head coach Hue Jackson on Thursday as a referendum on however they believe football teams should run. Instead of focusing on what the Browns were trying to do over the past two years, this was always an argument about style over substance. At 1–27 in their last 28 games, the Browns were still the same bumbling franchise they’ve always been on the field. What could have been if their plan was fully executed? We’ll never know.
The issue is that, yet again, Browns ownership is taking a culture and character in the making and yanking it out by the cord. This schizophrenic, irresponsible twisting and turning under the Jimmy Haslam regime has only fastened a 200-ton anvil onto a sinking ship that is never going to recover so long as he’s in charge. Remember the stories a summer ago about how the Browns owner was meeting with the architects of successful franchises in hopes that it would rub off on his woebegone team? What was the crux of those insider boardroom discussions? Keep doing what you’re doing. Give a massively complicated process two years and if it doesn’t work, screw it!
Look at their high school yearbook of general managers over the past seven years alone (Haslam bought the team in 2012):
Tom Heckert (2010-12)
Mike Holmgren (President, 2010-12)
Joe Banner (CEO, 2012-2013)
Mike Lombardi (2013-14)
Ray Farmer (2014-15)
Sashi Brown (2016-17)
And the head coaches:
Eric Mangini (2009-10)
Pat Shurmur (2010-12)
Rob Chudzinski (2013)
Mike Pettine (2014-15)
Hue Jackson (2016 – whenever the team needs another scapegoat)
The Browns go through identities like a college freshman, chucking aside whatever loses its trendiness without a moment’s hesitation. Their Patriots phase bled into their Eagles phase, which bled into a strange Eagles and Patriots phase, before hiring whoever the hell was still around to take the job. The Moneyball phase was supposed to be different. At the least, they were supposed to get some time to figure it out.
The only thing these wild variances have cost them since 2012 were the chances to draft Khalil Mack, Derek Carr, Mike Evans, Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson.
From the coaching staff in that time, they’ve only managed to let go of Shurmur, the current offensive coordinator of the 10–2 Vikings, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, Eagles quarterbacks coach (and soon-to-be head coach somewhere) John DeFilippo and current Washington quarterback coach Kevin O'Connell.
Any semblance of organizational stability during that time could have wrangled a Super Bowl-caliber staff and team out of this bundle. Instead, the Browns laughably continue to discover new lows.
The Sashi Brown regime was not perfect by a long shot. The idea that a football executive without scouting experience would essentially act as the iron-fisted arbitrator between the old school head coach and the design-thinking front office was pie-in-the-sky dreaming at best. The three- and five-year plans they created were almost certainly not followed to the letter because of mounting losses and pressure to cater to their stunningly loyal base of season ticket holders. Their legacy will be missing on a 2017 MVP candidate, even if the coaching staff and front office was in agreement that Wentz wasn’t their guy.
Now, the process begins to fool Cleveland’s fans again. How will they do it this time? Maybe they’ll bring in the accomplished, football-first general manager to signal a return to classic scouting methods. That will lead to the selection of yet another franchise quarterback who flames out due to lack of infrastructure. While the team figures out what it wants to be again, dozens of players who will end up being valuable free agent acquisitions for competitive teams will pass through the facility like fish weaving by a coral reef. But don’t worry, just when frustration and contempt reaches its peak, the timer will go off and the team will decide to clean house again. Maybe then, it will be different.