Cleveland Browns Offseason: A Paradigm Shift?

The Cleveland Browns is an organization in transition – again. This time, however, Cleveland has gone outside the box, so we followed suit and brought in a ringer. Brandon Magee, from Sons of Sam Horn, puts the Cleveland Browns offseason into perspective.

The tradition of Black Monday in the NFL the day that general managers and head coaches get their walking papers got off to an early start this season. Miami’s head coach Joe Philbin was the first to go in October, followed by the TitansKen Whisenhunt in November and the EaglesChip Kelly prior to week seventeen. The traditional Monday bloodletting was notably quiet, with only the GiantsTom Coughlin resigning his head coaching duties that day. Tuesday saw Tampa Bay’s dismissal of Lovie Smith and Sunday saw San Francisco’s dismissal of Jim Tomsula.

And then, there was the Cleveland Browns. The Browns announced a double barrel dismissal on Sunday, January 3, releasing both head coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer.

The next move by the Browns was quick, decisive, and completely unexpected. Indeed, it could lead to a rethinking of NFL football leadership as we currently understand it.

A Brief History of the New Browns

Browns-Dep-img1The history of the Cleveland Browns extends back to the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) in 1946 and includes eight championships (4 AAFC and 4 NFL), numerous memorable playoff games – notably losing “the Drive” and “the Fumble” games to the Denver Broncos in consecutive seasons – and, of course, the Dawg Pound. However, the relocation of the franchise by Art Modell to Baltimore in 1996 denied Cleveland their own football team until 1999. Upon reestablishment in Cleveland, the team kept the name, colors, and history. It was, however, merely an expansion team with a backstory.

Since the NFL returned to Cleveland in 1999, the Browns have had but a pair of winning seasons over the course of seventeen years: in 2002 under the tutelage of head coach/GM Butch Davis who brought the team to the playoffs with a 9-7 record; and in 2007, when head coach Romeo Crennel, GM Phil Savage, and the remarkable play of QB Derek Anderson brought the team to a 10-6 record… yet missed the playoffs. A 4-12 record in 2008, however, led to the dismissal of both Crennel and Savage.

For the first thirteen full seasons of the current incarnation of the Browns, the Lerner family owned the team. In 2012, Randy Lerner announced plans to sell the team to billionaire businessman Jimmy Haslam, a move that was officially approved by the NFL in the middle of the season, on October 16. At the end of the season, head coach Pat Shurmur and GM Tom Heckert were both dismissed. The final casualties of the Lerner regime, Shurmur was the sixth head coach (including interim head coach Terry Robiskie in 2004) and Heckert was the fifth general manager dismissed since the Browns had returned to Cleveland in 1999.Browns-Dep-img2

Unfortunately for Browns fans, the first three seasons under Haslam have played like the same, broken record: Head coachRob Chudzinski and GM Michael Lombardi each lasted a single season in 2013 and were followed by Pettine and Farmer, each of whom lasted only two seasons. With eight head coaches and seven GMs in seventeen seasons, a fundamental change in philosophy appears necessary.


Business as Normal

In general, there are only three moves that can really happen in the front office/head coaching hiring process. The difficulty, however, is that in the personnel hiring process, teams often attempt a Hail Mary to win the off-season as opposed to kicking a field goal to move to overtime. Making progress when both the GM and head coach positions are available becomes even more complicated given the options:

  1. A team with both positions open can choose to find the best qualified GM candidate (possibly poaching an assistant GM or a highly-rated player personnel assistant from another team) and then give the new GM full reign to find the best coach for the team.
  2. A team can hire the best head coaching candidate (whether it be a former NFL head coach, an up-and-coming assistant coach, or nabbing someone from the college coaching ranks) and then find a GM that will work with that new head coach.
  3. They could hire one candidate for both positions.

Over the past seventeen seasons, the Browns have worked with multiple combinations, including head coach/GM Butch Davis, head coach/de-facto GM Eric Mangini (after the firing of GM George Kokinis eight games into the 2009 season), and the three-headed monster of former head coach/GM Mike Holmgren as president with Tom Heckert as GM and Mangini. Needless to say, whatever combination the Browns have tried has ultimately yielded little success.

Browns = Moneyball?

The first move was the promotion of Sashi Brown from executive VP-General Counsel to executive VP of Football Operations. The movement of the team’s top lawyer to the top figure in the football hierarchy may be considered, to understate things, “unusual.” But at least Brown has been in football for over a decade, initially with the Jacksonville Jaguars before joining the Browns in 2013. At the introductory press conference, Haslam had this to say about Brown:

“He’s been in the NFL for 10 plus years, has been involved in the cap, has been heavily involved in our football administration and operations for the last year or two. He’s very smart, very organized, good at systems and processes and an outstanding team player. He’s also very strategic, so we will use those skills and working for him will be a GM whose primary job will be talent acquisition.”

Browns-Dep-img3Two days later, the Browns announced the hiring of Paul DePodesta as the team’s Chief Strategy Officer. DePodesta was hired away from Major League Baseball’s New York Mets, where he had served as Vice President of Player Development and Scouting since November 2010. Given the playoff success of the 2015 Mets, DePodesta was considered a leading candidate to be hired as an MLB general manager – a position he had previously held with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004 and 2005. In his 20 seasons in MLB, DePodesta has served as an intern, an advanced scout, and in a number of executive front office positions for five different teams. In DePodesta’s press conference, similar themes were hit upon by Haslam:

“We are fortunate to bring in Paul, an extremely talented, highly respected sports executive who will add a critical dimension to our front office. His approach and ambition to find the best pathways for organizational success transcend one specific sport and his experience as a high-level sports executive make him a terrific addition to the Cleveland Browns. While we are excited about what Paul will provide our organization, we remain fully focused on the critical task of identifying the right head coach and a top talent evaluator who will provide the football expertise needed to be successful.”

These two hirings have one significant trait in common: Both of the people hired are experts in revamping the organization through changes to systems, approach, and process.

The Coach

On Wednesday, January 13, the Browns introduced their third new face since the end of the season, introducing former Cincinnati offensive coordinator Hue Jackson as head coach. While the decision on Jackson was quickly reached by the new front office of Brown and DePodesta, it was not done without due diligence. The Browns had interviewed six others in the five days prior to hiring Jackson, including Sean McDermott, Matt Patricia, Adam Gase, and Doug Marrone. Haslam had the following to say about Jackson:

Browns-Dep-img4“He embodies all the qualities that will provide strong leadership for our football team. He is highly experienced, deeply passionate about winning, and relentless in trying to find ways to put his players in the best position to succeed. He possesses that unique ability to reach the entire locker room in a way that demands accountability while getting the buy-in and team-first mentality that leads to positive results. I think our players will love playing for him.”

Jackson was one of only two coaches interviewed (along with Marrone) that had previous NFL head coaching experience, having led the Oakland Raiders to an 8-8 record in 2011. Jackson also has experience coaching in all three dimensions of the game, having been the secondary/special teams coach in Cincinnati in 2012. In fact, Jackson will become the first head coach with previous NFL head coaching experience since the franchise returned to Cleveland in 1999.

The Talent Evaluator

If there has been one noteworthy element to the changes since the beginning of the process, it has been the use, or rather lack thereof, of the term “GM.” It was utilized during the press conference with Sashi Brown, but dropped during the press conferences of DePodesta and Jackson. For example, here is Sashi Brown on the question of whether or not Hue Jackson will be involved in the hiring of front office personnel:

“We are going to set out in earnest to find our top personnel person. This week, we will start our interviews and hope to have that concluded, as I said, in earnest. Obviously, tonight, this conversation is about Hue Jackson tonight. We’re excited about our head coach, but we will set out to find that person and Hue will be involved, certainly. Again, I think as Hue said, this is going to be a collaborative, very integrative partnership is the way I think Paul Hue and I think about it with Jimmy certainly. He’ll be involved as we move forward.”

Whomever the next “talent evaluator” is, there is little doubt that that person will not serve as a traditional GM. The job will be defined within the parameters of Brown and DePodesta, two executives whose strengths do not lie in on-field football evaluation. However, this constraint may end up being a blessing in disguise, for the holder of the new position will not have to deal with other issues that can disrupt a great talent evaluator: contract and salary cap minutiae, day-to-day meetings with the coaching staff and ownership, interviews with the press, and so forth. Rather, they can find an evaluator who can simply look at tape and find the best player available for the team and for the strengths of the coaching staff. The job may also lead to an easier rise up the executive leadership ladder, as responsibility can be added at a reasonable and appropriate pace.

The Browns have thrown the traditional football power structure in the trash as they look to rebuild the team from the doldrums it has been locked in since their revival in 1999: the owner is a billionaire businessman; the head of football operations is a lawyer; his consigliere is a baseball guy. But they have a head coach who has been in that position before and they seem, for the first time in a long time, to have a plan. The plan may not work. In fact, it might fail. Spectacularly, even. But even if the worst does happen, nothing has been lost besides some more seasons which was the existing trajectory anyway. If it succeeds, however, Michael Lewis may have a new book to write.

Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.

Brandon Magee is Sons of Sam Horn‘s minor league expert; he has written about minor league travel, ranking prospects, a first round draft pick, and the MLB First-Year Player Draft.

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