Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A light shines in Berea

Jimmy Haslam III performed some major surgery on his professional football investment Tuesday morning.

The Browns owner successfully removed the dys from his dysfunctional football team with three stunningly bold strokes.

Gone are CEO Joe Banner and General Manager Mike (The Ghost) Lombardi. And assistant general manager Ray Farmer had the assistant portion of his title removed.

Strains of “Happy Days Are Here Again” could be heard from just about all vicinities of Browns Nation as an owner determined to get this thing right dispatched the Dark Side of the Browns.

During his 20-minute news conference with a slightly more combative media than usual, Haslam managed to tap dance his way some touchy questions and still maintain the professional dignity of Banner and Lombardi.

He acknowledged that he and Banner agreed in recent days to streamline things at 76 Lou Groza Blvd. The corporate structure was somewhat top heavy and needed to lose some weight.

“The previous setup was a little bit cumbersome,” he explained. A little bit? No other National Football League team had a setup where the CEO, or whoever was at the top of the food chain, was the team’s face while the general manager skulked in the background.

So were Banner and Lombardi fired? Or did they quietly quit and were allowed to walk out with a semblance of dignity? We may never know. Those kinds of secrets rarely are leaked.

But a good guess would be that Haslam had become much more hands-on recently, thus making Banner’s presence as CEO superfluous. 

More and more, it looked as though Haslam was in charge. He is why Rob Chudzinski is no longer the head coach. And he is why Mike Pettine is.

Banner likes offensive-minded coaches. Pettine is a defensive-minded coach. Always has been. His appointment took many by surprise.

The guess here is that Haslam made the call on Pettine 20 days ago and Banner did not like being usurped, although he was a major part of the selection process. It appeared to be a power play that Haslam won.

Then again, maybe Haslam wasn’t pleased that Banner dragged his feet after the Chudzinski firing. The longer the search for his successor lasted, the more the embarrassment and dysfunctional perception lingered.

And while Haslam blew off that perception as a figment of the media’s imagination (“People I talk to around the country think this is a great opportunity in Cleveland”), he’s smart enough to know about whispers around the league that suggested that was precisely the case. Something had to be done to dispel that notion.

What better way than to jettison the two most mercurial members of the front office and elevate the one man who seemed to have a handle on what it was Haslam was trying to achieve.

The only question is why it took Haslam so long to see what others saw. And what exactly was the causal factor for finally making the moves he made? Again, we’ll probably never know.

Perhaps Haslam could more easily cut the cord because the NFL arranged his business marriage with Banner. It was a case of joining someone looking to own a team with someone who brought a wealth of NFL experience to the relationship. “He set us up for success,” Haslam said of Banner.

The owner said the moves were made “to position the organization to be a winning football team.” Then he repeated his consistent mantra. “This owner is committed to bringing a winner to the Browns.”

One gets the impression that he’s going to keep making changes until he finally gets it right. He is unafraid to make those moves. For that, he should be commended, especially considering the relative non-involvement of the previous ownership.

So why Banner and Lombardi together? Why not just one? Because they are a matched set, that’s why.

When Banner came on board in mid-October in 2012, Lombardi was still a free agent. Rumors persisted the controversial former Browns operative in the Bill Belichick era would return. They were neither confirmed nor denied.

They eventually proved true with Lombardi’s appointment as vice president of pro personnel in January of 2013. A few months later, the charade’s mask was removed when he was named the general manager and he immediately was shunted into the media background by the club.

So when it was time for Banner to leave, Lombardi was a natural to follow because he no longer had protection. Haslam was now in charge.

Admitting he still is working on his learning curve of being an NFL owner, Haslam announced, “You’ll see us more here in Berea.”

So how did Farmer, a linebacker with the Philadelphia Eagles in the late 1990s, become the anointed one? “He’s smart, he organized, he’s a tireless worker and he’s been around football his whole life,” said Haslam, who eventually left the podium and turned over the news conference to his new GM.

“We are going to make Cleveland proud going forward,” said Farmer, who arrived in Cleveland last March after spending seven years with the Kansas City Chiefs as director of pro personnel.

The new GM, who used the phrase “moving forward” at least a dozen times during his session with the media, said he received the good news of his promotion Monday night and was most happy for his parents, who have watched him progress nicely through the NFL system.

With the college football draft less than three months from now, Farmer said he would lean on the wisdom of others he declined to name in an effort to be totally prepared for his first shot at the annual lottery.

Update: The Browns have hired former Chiefs personnel director Bill Kuharich to assist and prepare Farmer for the draft. The two worked together in Kansas City for several years. Kuharich is the son of former NFL coach and executive Joe Kuharich.

With 10 picks, including seven in the first four rounds, and significant salary cap space, Farmer has been placed in a most envious position. Other GMs around the league would love to be in his shoes come May 8-10.

With the draft in mind, Farmer was asked where the Browns needed to improve. He came up with the definitive answer.

“We need the most improvement in wins,” he said.

As they say on Family Feud, good answer.


  1. While I'm no fan of his business practices or his political affiliations, it's hard not to approve of this move (honestly, I wasted half the day listening to podcast after podcast for reactions, explanations, etc. - maybe I need to get a life!!). It remains to be seen how patient he will be with Farmer and Pettine. It also remains to be seen how Farmer and Pettine will work together. Hiring (or elevating in this case) a GM after a HC is hired is tricky at best. We've seen that before with Crennel/Savage. Here's hoping it works and that Farmer is as good as advertised and that Pettine and his young staff grow into a top level crew. Now, I've GOT to get some work done... Thanks! Paul from Seattle.

  2. Hi Paul,

    On behalf of all the bloggers and media outlets, sorry for interrupting your day. Now then . . .

    I believe these moves will go a long way in stabilizing the situation in Berea. Thus the headline.

    Haslam had to do something before his entire front office crumbled. By streamlining it, the lines of communication will be much clearer.

    Everyone will know what he has to do. Farmer will control the roster, Pettine will coach and Alec Scheiner will handle the business end. Just three guys stirring the pot. That's the way it should be.

    No more nonsense from Banner and Lombardi. This is classic addition by subtraction. Now all Haslam has to do is sit back and let these guys do what they were hired to do.

    We'll find out soon enough whether Farmer is as good as advertised. The college draft separates the men from the boys. Bringing Kuharich on board can't hurt.

    Sometimes, all it takes is one strong draft to turn a team around. And with Farmer's reputation as a sound personnel man, who knows? Maybe Haslam has stumbled into what might turn out to be a good situation.

    I have a feeling Farmer will get a lot more rope to work with than Banner and Lombardi. Normalcy, it would appear, has returned to Berea.