What a difference a week makes. Last Friday, as I looked ahead to the Browns-Bengals matchup for the second time of the young NFL season, the Browns were in danger of wandering into unchartered territory. The team had never lost 12 games in a row in their long, storied history and head coach Pat Shumur had never beaten a division rival in his short tenure in Cleveland. It was imperative that one of those facts changed and one of them stayed the same last Sunday. Fortunately, thanks to an impressive all-around team effort, despite a few early miscues, the Browns won 34-24 and ended both their 11-game skid and Shurmur's futility against his AFC North counterparts. It couldn't have come at a better time.
On Tuesday, the NFL owners convened in Chicago and unanimously voted 32-0 in favor of the sale of the Cleveland Browns franchise from Randy Lerner to Tennessee billionaire and businessman Jimmy Haslam III. The prospect of Haslam's ownership along with Sunday's win has breathed new life into the otherwise miserable season the Browns have endured thus far. Therein lies the excitement but, with it, much uncertainty going forward. During his meeting with the assembled press in Chicago, Haslam announced that he would be bringing in former Philadelphia Eagles president Joe Banner to be the new Chief Executive Officer of the Browns. Banner, it was said, will oversee all team operations.
As had been long suspected, current team president Mike Holmgren, who was hired by Lerner to be (in Halsam's words) "the de facto owner," will be stepping down at the end of the season to retire permanently from the NFL after a decorated career. Holmgren will stay on in the interim to be an advisor to Haslam and Banner and to help them with the transition of taking over the operations of the team. This is a smart move, in my opinion, considering the sale of the team was finalized in the middle of the regular season.
Normally, this sort of transaction and transition would likely take place in the offseason and not when the players and coaches are trying to focus on defeating the next opponent. However, as we have discovered under Randy Lerner's stewardship, franchise changing moves have often defied convention. Browns fans can only hope those days are over. Forever. Though it may be a bit awkward around the halls of 76 Lou Groza Boulevard for the duration of the season, having Holmgren on hand to answer questions and to explain current organizational practices to Banner and Haslam will give the incoming decision-makers a better idea of what should stay and what needs to be fixed.
What has yet to be decided, at this point, are the futures of the other men in charge of the current Browns football team, most notably Shurmur and General Manager Tom Heckert. While Browns fans are understandably excited to have what seem to be two men in charge of the franchise who are both qualified and passionate about returning this team to greatness, there is some nervousness about what it might mean for the current men in charge.
Shurmur has been on the "hot seat" ever since it was announced that the team was for sale in July. Beginning the season 0-5 certainly didn't help his cause. However, there is still that fear of another restart and the practice of continually turning over the coaching staff before they have a chance to see their vision through. While many fans seem to dislike Shurmur for a variety of reasons and wouldn‘t mind seeing him replaced, there is always that fear of the unknown. Haslam and Banner have both stated that no other personnel changes will be made during the season and Shurmur, like everyone else, will have these final 10 games to prove to that he and his plan should stick around for a third season. But I suspect that may not actually be the case. More on that in a moment.
The man whose future most Browns fans are really concerned about is that of the architect of the current roster; the man responsible for the youth movement in which the team has gone from having a locker room full of aging vets with diminishing skills to the second youngest team in the league. Heckert was hired by Mike Holmgren to build this team from the ground up by using the Draft to develop a core of skilled players, placing an emphasis on re-signing those core players, and then using free agency sparingly to fill in other areas of need. These players would become the foundation of the team and they would be expected to produce early and often.
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While the successful teams around the league typically already have that core in place and rely on rookies to go through more of a transition before being expected to produce, Heckert's philosophy was more of a trial by fire. Much of this came out of necessity due to inheriting a roster in such drastic need of turnover. The most difficult thing for Browns fans during this transition has been coming to terms with the fact that winning, under these circumstances, would likely take time. And patience is a virtue most Browns fans have been living without for quite some time.
Over the last three seasons, with so many rookies and young players stepping into key roles for the Browns and so many other teams already further along in their development, you got the sense that it was like the freshmen playing against the varsity on Sundays. It basically was. But now, after three fairly successful drafts, thanks to Heckert, the Browns seem to have their core in place and won't need to rely on starting so many rookies in the seasons to come. Assuming a majority of these young players pan out, they can finally put their rookie draft picks through a more standard process of acclimation before throwing them out there against the best of the best every Sunday. But the question almost every Browns fan has on their mind right now is, "Will Heckert be here to see it?" Like with Shurmur, I'm beginning to doubt it.
During Banner's introductory press conference on Wednesday, sitting next to his new boss, he threw out a nugget of truth I found to be quite revealing. When asked about knowing the Browns in terms of history, marketing, and tradition, Banner replied, "That's why we're here... frankly we met before there was a franchise necessarily identified as to where we would be." You don't say, Joe. Now, I may just be reading too much into what could be nothing more than a ripple in a sea full of verbiage, but this speaks volumes to me. According to Banner, once he met with Haslam, he never met with any other prospective ownership groups. If that's true and they decided that they were going to employ their collective vision of how to run a successful NFL franchise before they even discovered what team would become available to them, it tells me that all bets are off when it comes to who may be expendable now that they‘re in Cleveland.
People are quick to connect the dots between the current Browns front office/coaching staff and the one that formerly existed in Philadelphia. In addition to Heckert and Shurmur, current Browns front office executives such as Director of Pro Personnel, Jon Sandusky, Director of College Scouting, John Spytek and current Defensive Assistant Ray Rhodes, all worked under Joe Banner while he was the president of the Philadelphia Eagles. It's easy to assume that people who worked together in the past would be willing to do it again. However, considering Banner and Haslam met and identified a shared vision of what they wanted their new organization to look like before they even knew what franchise they would be controlling, the prior relationships between Banner and current members of the Browns staff might be nothing more than a convenient coincidence. If so, prior working relationships are moot and no one is safe.
While many seem to feel that Shurmur has to win football games to save his job, the decision to part with Heckert may actually be easier than people realize. When Heckert was the General Manager of the Eagles, he was so in title only. Head Coach Andy Reid had complete authority of the 53-man roster. Mike Holmgren lured Heckert to Cleveland so that he could have the power he was never allowed to have in Philly. Now that Banner is replacing Holmgren as CEO of the Browns, whether or not he chooses to be involved with personnel decisions as they pertain to the roster might determine the fate of Heckert going forward. When Haslam was introduced in Chicago on Tuesday, he told reporters that Banner would have control over football operations and all football personnel would report directly to him.
The next day, however, when Banner was asked a similar question about his role in that regard, he replied, "First let's elaborate a little about what Jimmy said, as it relates to football decisions for example, you're asking about these kind of people that we have here, these aren't going to be my decisions. I'll be involved with that. Jimmy owns the team ... As the owner of the team, obviously he'll have final say over those matters, but we'll work together on those kinds of decisions. I think the detail of the rest of your question will really evolve. I think we're going to try to get some really strong people that are not only really good at what they do, but they fit together well and as we see what the various strengths and weaknesses are of the people we put together, we'll figure out better exactly what detail of who's going to have what exact responsibilities. The key for us is to get a group of really strong people that are good at what they do." (Note the use of future tense in this statement.)
Take it for what it's worth, but the decision to let Heckert go at the conclusion of the season might end up being mutual for both parties. If Banner doesn't feel that Heckert and his team of scouts fit with the vision that he and Haslam share, and if Heckert doesn't want to give up control of the roster that Mike Holmgren assured him when he was hired, then his release seems as sure as ever. There have even been reports out there by members of the Cleveland media, as told to by sources close to Heckert, that he has been actively seeking opportunities elsewhere around the NFL since August. If this is at all true, it might just be a matter of time for Heckert. And if Holmgren and Heckert are both out, one can easily conclude it will take more than winning a few games down the stretch for Pat Shurmur to keep his job as head coach.
While Browns fans will undoubtedly groan at the thought of another reset, let us consider the job that Holmgren and Heckert did while they were here to reconstruct this roster to what it is today. Much like Eric Mangini before them, they have cleared the way for the next group coming in. Mangini did a great job of ridding the locker room of distractions and malcontents like Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow and built a community of hard-working guys who knew what it took to buy in to a plan. Heckert and Holmgren then came along and shed the weight of that locker room by turning over the age and upgrading the talent but keeping the same worker‘s mentality. Now, the torch seems poised to be passed once again, however, this time without the turnover of the roster that accompanied the previous restarts.
As it stands today, the Browns have a locker room full of talented, hungry and hard-working young men who seem to be on the verge of taking the next step toward greatness. And now, they finally have the men in charge at the very top with the vision and the experience to lead them (and the rest of us) there. Despite the uncertainty within the organization as to what will happen to Heckert and Shurmur, Browns fans should be excited and rest assured the pieces are falling into place, this time in the correct order. Only time will tell what ultimately happens to the men who are here fighting for their jobs. But they can't worry about their future right now because oh, by the way, the Browns have a game on Sunday.