BEREA, Ohio — At first glance, owner Jimmy Haslam’s continually quick trigger finger looks as outrageous as anything that’s been done with the Browns since the secret handshake on the tarmac in Baltimore.
But the Browns owner’s shocking move Tuesday to dismiss CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi and promote Ray Farmer to Lombardi’s post was actually the first step on the road back to respectability.
It is hard to believe Haslam was so bold, refusing to let the team muddle through the most crucial offseason in franchise history with the wrong organizational structure and the wrong men in charge of personnel decisions. It was looking like it would take another 11 months of missteps, which would have set the Browns back five more years, considering their 10 draft picks and abundant salary cap space and crucial choices to be made in free agency.
It is also hard to believe Haslam realized relatively quickly he didn’t mesh with Banner or had given him too much power. Instead of keeping Banner on the business side, Haslam retained President Alec Scheiner and increased his responsibilities, which now might include dealing with the city of Cleveland on stadium issues and the upcoming sin-tax vote. Banner will stay on in a transition role for no more than two months.
The most believable part of it all was the promotion of Farmer, which Haslam seemed to hint was in the works at coach Mike Pettine’s introductory news conference Jan. 23. Haslam said then he had spent an hour talking at lunch with Farmer, who took himself out of the running for the Miami Dolphins general manager job the same day. Farmer said Haslam made him no guarantee, but both Haslam and Banner touted Farmer’s abilities after Pettine spoke.
Still under federal investigation for rebate fraud by his Pilot Flying J truck stop company, Haslam is staking the Browns’ future on two up-and-coming stars — Farmer, 39, and Scheiner, 43 — and Pettine, 47, an impressive but unproven rookie coach and former Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator.
Farmer becomes the seventh African-American general manager in the NFL, the most in league history, and the first with the Browns.
“I definitely am very proud and happy for this day,” Farmer said of the significance of his hiring for minorities. “As I get older, my mom and dad are dear to me and I wanted them to see this moment in my life. I’m extremely excited for them to witness their son achieve this milestone that I kind of set forth for myself.”
Haslam left open the position of CEO, which could eventually be filled by his close friend from the University of Tennessee, Peyton Manning. The Denver Broncos quarterback turns 38 next month, but is expected to be heavily pursued as a network television analyst when he retires. If that lucrative and relatively easy job doesn’t appeal to him, it has long been speculated that Manning could elect to follow in the footsteps of John Elway, the Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations.
The Browns took a beating nationally, but Haslam’s gutsy “streamlining” was cheered locally. Haslam could organize a pep rally for this weekend and sell out FirstEnergy Stadium in a matter of hours.
It does seem totally backward to hire the coach before the GM, especially since Farmer did not travel during the interview process and was mainly charged with researching Pettine’s credentials. But Farmer and Pettine seem to have the people skills to make their relationship work.
It looks bad for Haslam to have fired two regimes — coach Pat Shurmur, General Manager Tom Heckert and President Mike Holmgren, then first-year coach Rob Chudzinski, Banner and Lombardi — in his 16 months in charge. That’s a lot of scalps, fueling the perception that Haslam has no clue what he’s doing. But the first three were hires of now-minority owner Randy Lerner, who might still be paying them. With the latter three, Haslam should be lauded for trying to make things right, even though Chudzinski deserved more time.
Haslam might have been reacting to Banner’s and Lombardi’s failure to deliver a coach like Bill O’Brien (hired by the Houston Texans) or Josh McDaniels (who remained offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots) or after a falling-out with Banner over Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, whom Banner wanted to interview a second time after the Super Bowl. Haslam continued to lash out at the media for criticism over the length of the 25-day coaching search and the fact that at least four candidates, with Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen added to that list Tuesday, took their names out of the running. But something during that process could have led to the duo’s ouster, especially with the charge of the organization’s “radioactivity” coming from the league’s own network.
Now some of the radioactivity is gone, although the black cloud of Haslam’s possible indictment still looms.
“I will accept comments and criticism about change and I’ll accept responsibility for some of the changes that have been made,” Haslam said. “I underestimated this. It’s a learning curve to be an NFL owner. If you want to look at me as a work in progress, that’s fair to say. I will tell you this: These are the last of the major changes we’re going to make in the organization. We’ll continue to tinker to find ways to improve it and make it better.”
What Haslam did Tuesday did not smack of dysfunction. While it was a power coup, with Haslam grabbing the reins from Banner, it also was a brilliant flash of clarity that could get the Browns back on track.