The Cleveland Browns’ decision to fire Freddie Kitchens on Sunday was met with head nods and chuckles.
Of course, it was time for Kitchens to go. Of course, he was in over his head.
But when word leaked Tuesday that general manager John Dorsey was in trouble and later got the ax too, well, those chuckles turned to deep sighs in Ohio.
Browns fans have seen this act before from team owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam, who clearly want to win but have no idea how as they continue to put this fan base through a cruel and twisted football version of “Groundhog Day.”
Step One: The team underachieves.
Step Two: Haslam gets frustrated and impatient, someone (or some) get fired.
Step Three: A new hope gets hired, and expectations rise.
Step Four: Start back at Step One again.
And so on, and so on it goes, which explains how, in an era of football when parity is a driving force of the league, the Haslams have accumulated a horrific record since they bought the Browns in October 2012.
Since 2013, the first full season the Haslams owned the team, Cleveland is 28-83-1. That’s a 25 percent winning percentage, about 16 percent behind what William Clay Ford Sr., the deceased patriarch of the Detroit Lions, posted as team owner from 1964-2013. That should explain how pathetic the Haslams’ winning percentage is, right?
But here we are again, with the Haslams holding everyone — the coaches, the players, the general manager, the executives, the waterboy — accountable except themselves.
And it’s a shame. The Browns are one of the NFL’s most historic franchises, a place where legends like Paul Brown, Jim Brown and Otto Graham thrived, and more importantly, won championships.
Of course, those championships came in the 1950s and ’60s. Since then, the Browns have not only failed to reach a Super Bowl — joining the Lions as the only non-expansion team to do so — they also employed the greatest coach of all time (Bill Belichick) and never reaped any of the benefits, went 0-16 in 2016 and implemented the single-worst uniform design in the NFL in 2015.
It’s time for this to stop.
Here are some ways the Haslams can resurrect this franchise, based on football truths I’ve culled from people I respect in the league during my time covering the NFL.
Qualities needed for GM, head coach
The key to being a good NFL team owner is to hire competent people and give them time and space to do their jobs. Doing both will not be easy, particularly for Jimmy Haslam, an impatient meddler with a tendency to seek opinions from far too many internal voices (which only encourages more culture-crushing power grabs from subordinates). But hiring smart people and empowering them fully so everyone can chart the course forward is the only way to change the culture of losing and back-stabbing in Cleveland.
It’s not impossible to do. After all this trial and error, the Haslams may be on the verge of finding a winning path. But doing so will require a new four-step process from the Haslams, one that would theoretically replace their patented, time-tested “How to lose NFL games at a clip faster than the Detroit Lions” strategy.
Step One: Hire a general manager who will vibe with chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, who has earned responsibility from within the organization and is reportedly running the head coaching search. My vote is for Eagles vice president of football operations Andrew Berry, who is bright and highly regarded and is believed to be in the running for the position. If Berry doesn’t work out, the key here is to hire someone smart that DePodesta can be tied to at the hip.
Step Two: Hire a head coach who shares the same team-building philosophy of DePodesta and the new general manager, and can maximize the talents of quarterback Baker Mayfield, who is about to be coached by his fourth head coach in three years.
This is the type of dysfunction that causes first-round quarterbacks to bust. We’re approaching a danger zone with Mayfield, who will have no more godfathers — someone personally involved in his selection — in the building. If the Browns want to ensure he makes it, and they should because they can win with him, the next coach needs to believe in him and build an offense around his talents.
To do that, they should turn to Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, whose zone run-heavy offensive scheme is en vogue in the NFL. He has also coaxed a career season out of Kirk Cousins. Stefanski’s scheme would fit Mayfield’s strengths (athleticism, arm) while minimizing his weaknesses (his lack of height).
Step Three: Spend lots of money in free agency on the best zone-blocking offensive linemen available. This will improve the run game, which will negate a 2019 weakness — pass protection.
Step Four: The Haslams need to stay the hell away from all football decisions for at least three years. Conversations should be limited to the triumvirate (DePodesta, GM, coach), a group that should be reminded regularly that it will get three years together, but if one of them eventually goes, all of them will go. This will prevent the in-fighting that has caused past Browns regimes to lose course.
Do all four steps, and there is the possibility for a quick turnaround in Cleveland, maybe even a winning record and/or playoff berth in 2020. The Browns’ skill position players are strong. Sure, they underachieved this year, particularly at receiver, but with a better offensive line and a scheme more fitting of Mayfield’s talents, Cleveland could score a lot of points very quickly next season.
The wake of another failed regime, where the principles involved (Dorsey and Kitchens) couldn’t change the culture, served as a reminder that the Browns’ ultimate fate hinges on the Haslams changing their ways of doing things.
And given their embarrassing winning percentage, it’s hard for Browns fans to expect that, or even remain optimistic. Considering the savage punishment they’ve been subjected to for over half a century, one can only hope it comes to fruition.
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