Jimmy Haslam’s biggest mistake two years ago wasn’t making Sashi Brown captain of his personnel department. And it wasn’t hiring Hue Jackson to be his head coach.
We’re here today—with Brown out in Cleveland—because he hired them together.
The Browns are starting over again, for the fourth time in Haslam’s five years as owner, thanks to an inability to see the one thing that takes down more teams than anything else on a consistent basis. Cleveland’s football operation wasn’t aligned, the same reason it went sideways under the last two regimes, and this time, Haslam should’ve been able to see it coming all the way from Knoxville.
In Brown, the Browns brought aboard an analytically-driven, outside-the-box business-side-bred executive to put together the roster. In Jackson, they hired an old-school coach who’s spent 30 years teaching the game, and was wildly successful, over the four years previous to his arrival, working for one if the NFL’s most old-fashioned franchises, in Cincinnati.
Philosophically, scouting and coaching were inevitably going to butt heads. And a team can best overcome that if it’s in a position to win quickly, because winning has a way of pulling people together to work out their differences. But Cleveland was in shambles when Brown was elevated and Jackson was hired—and needed a full-on football facelift.
Predictably, it didn’t take long for problems to surface.
Two months in, Brown and the personnel staff drew a hard negotiating line (again, those numbers) and lost free agents Alex Mack, Mitchell Schwartz, Travis Benjamin, and Tashaun Gipson, among others, as a result. A month after that, the Browns traded down in the draft, and in many cases out into future drafts in an effort to amass capital. And therein, festered the problem.
The NFL’s version of The Process was underway, and through it there was very little question that EVP of football operations Sashi Brown was doing a bang-up job of building an asset warchest that would make Sam Hinkie blush. And the haul now looks great on paper, and may look even better a few years down the line. But in the end, he couldn’t swiftly enough give his coaches what they really wanted.
He couldn’t give them enough players quickly enough.
Privately, the results were what you’d expect—competitive coaches were unhappy with the state of the roster and the limited chance they were being given to win on a week-to-week basis—and animosity building as a result.
Drafting Myles Garrett, something the coaches wanted from the start, gave the two sides of the building one moment of compromise in 2017, but it was fleeting. And everything only worsened in October, when Brown failed to land one of the two quarterbacks that Jackson wanted—Jimmy Garoppolo and A.J. McCarron.
There was a perceived lack of aggression in pursuing Garoppolo—Cleveland wanted Garoppolo in the spring but was told he was unavailable, then sat on the sideline as he went to the Niners on Oct. 30. It was, even moreso, the way that the trade for McCarron, whom Jackson worked with in Cincinnati, was botched, leaving the coaches fuming.
All the while, Brown carried out his plan to build through the draft, by building up a huge margin-for-error with creative moves like dealing for Brock Osweiler’s contract and getting a second-round pick as a result. But the team was losing, and a coaching staff, which was skeptical of the analytics experiment and impatient with a slow process that left the roster with gaping holes, eventually had enough.
That’s not to exonerate anyone, but it’s clear that the greatest miscalculation was made by the man who matched two diametrically opposed philosophies in the two most important positions on the football side of his franchise.
If there’s a glimmer of hope to be had here, John Dorsey’s name was the first to surface in the Browns’ looming GM search. And that has little to do with Dorsey’s credentials. It’s all about who he is.
As I understand it, Haslam has been working for over two weeks on a potential overhaul. At first, he was looking, with Brown, at the idea of adding a strong, old-school voice to help run the personnel side. Then, after some research, he made the decision to just pull the plug on Brown.
The fact that Dorsey’s name (and I’m told the Browns are looking at Dorsey hard now) is here is a tacit acknowledgement that Haslam sees what he should’ve two years ago—coaching and scouting have to be aligned. Dorsey is an old on-the-road scout, with a belief system that lines right up with Jackson’s. Short of the moonshot of landing Peyton Manning (he and Haslam are close), this one actually makes sense.
And it shouldn’t be lost either that this offseason will be about picking players, with the assets in place. Cleveland will likely have the first pick, and be in position to take a quarterback there, and that’s just part of a haul that includes five picks in the first two rounds, 12 in the first six rounds, and over $100 million in cap space.
It couldn’t be more obvious, looking at all of that, that there are a lot of big decisions coming for the Browns over the next six months.
But the biggest ones come now. Because if Cleveland can’t avoid the missteps it took two years ago, the rest—as people there know well by now—probably won’t matter.