Monday, December 30, 2013

A rudderless mess

Jimmy Haslam III and Joe Banner attempted unsuccessfully to wipe the egg off their respective faces at a news conference Monday trying to explain why they fired Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski late Sunday.

In what seemingly was a knee-jerk move after the club’s dismal 4-12 campaign, the owner and CEO dodged question after question with a deft array of verbal dance moves. These men know how not to answer questions.

An unusually testy Cleveland media badgered the two men – with the notable absence of General Manager Mike Lombardi at the news conference – with questions that did not require yes or no answers.

The normally media softballs were missing, a sign perhaps they did not agree with and were upset by  the dismissal of the rookie head coach. They were actually trying to hold those responsible for the firing accountable for their actions.

One question by a news, not sports, reporter – it was really more of a request – centered on several Facebook remarks severely criticizing the move and asked for Haslam’s response. The owner, who winced a few times while listening to the biting remarks, basically did not quarrel with them, but asserted he understood the anger and that things were going to change.

Haslam was particularly defensive with his answers and came up with some stock answers. “We understand the importance of getting it right,” he said several times. Said Banner, “We’re not going to accept not being successful.”

Perhaps the most telling remark of the entire 32-minute news conference was this one from Haslam: “It galls me to pick up the paper and read ‘same old Browns.’ Our single mission is to change that.”

Haslam is accustomed to success in the business world and being a part of a successful sports franchise. He was exposed to the latter through his minority ownership of the Pittsburgh Steelers before purchasing the Browns.

He believed that exposure provided a learning experience in how to put together not only a competitive football team, but one that would annually challenge for appearances in the postseason.

The owner has been accustomed to success his whole life. So when the Browns pulled their spectacular fade to conclude the 2013 season, he was not only extremely disappointed, he was embarrassed. He’ll never admit that publicly, but the disappointment was etched on his face.

It became increasingly clear that Chudzinski’s inability to stem the tide down the stretch cost him his job. All they were looking for, according to Haslam, was to be “better in that last three games (of the season) than we were the first three games.”

The lack of any kind of progress is what sealed Chudzinski's fate. “The lack of progress of the roster and players is really what drove us to be here today,” said Banner, who admitted he stuck with Andy Reid in Philadelphia after he won only five games in his rookie year as a head coach.

It was only several weeks ago – November 13 to be exact – that Banner said the following about his head coach when the Browns entered the bye week at 4-5:

“I’d be hard pressed to think that in nine weeks a first-time head coach can do any better or any more than he’s doing. All of the measurables you’d look to come up with, if you even created a yardstick or measuring at this moment, I just think he’s done an outstanding job.”

What a difference seven weeks can make.

Banner admitted the final decision to jettison Chudzinski was made Saturday, although the move had been in the discussion stage for about a week. So even if the Browns had knocked off the Steelers Sunday, Chudzinski was history. That wasn’t going to happen and those in the Ivory Tower knew it.

In somewhat of an ironic coincidence, the last four fired Browns coaches – Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur and now Chudzinski – were let go following a final-game loss to the Steelers.

With one notable exception, there is no question the Browns in the second half of the season played nowhere near as well as in the first half, especially on defense. They played well enough to win the New England game and Patriots coach Bill Belichick as much as admitted it after the game.

The news conference was a study in soft self-flagellation. The two men took full responsibility for the mistake of hiring Chudzinski, but insisted on looking forward. Haslam and Banner reiterated several times that they “understood the importance of getting it right.”

Whether this move is right or wrong is moot at this point. These power men are in a position to make whatever moves they deem necessary to better the product. It is their prerogative no matter what the public thinks.

Or the players, for that matter. Said offensive tackle Joe Thomas, “You look at the great franchises. They don’t fire their coach after the first season. You can’t do it. It sets everything back. You just hit the reset button. It severely damages the organization and lengthens the amount of time it takes to get back to the playoffs and turn the team into a consistent winner. This organization needs continuity.”

Added another member of the Browns, who preferred anonymity, most likely because of the nature of his comment, “We are so dysfunctional.  These billionaires (Haslam) need to pick somebody and stay with them. These aren’t girlfriends. You can’t dump them if they (fail to please you) one time.”

John McMullen from The Sports Network chimes in with: “The Browns only enhance their reputation as a rudderless mess, incapable of any kind of patience or continuity.” Can’t quarrel with that.

After the Randy Lerner regime departed, it was thought the Browns were headed in another, more positive, direction, Turns out, at least based on what we’ve seen in the last year, that isn’t even close to being the case. There is no question the Browns are taking a huge public relations hit with this one and have a sizable P. R. mountain to climb.

And this time, they’d better get it right.

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