Monday, July 30, 2012

Sale of Browns is long past due

We could have been stardust, Randy.
People often define organizational failure as coming from the top down. The expression "shit rolls downhill" isn't a part of the American vernacular just because, you know, it sounds sporty or something. 

The Cleveland Browns are more like a tree - a tall, stout oak that has been standing for  a century but over the last decade has shown gradual signs of sickness, an irrevocable rot that's slowly killing the once-proud sentinel. The illness is buried in the roots, and sometimes the only cure is to rip the tree from the ground and plant anew. 

Shaky metaphors aside, this is pretty much how I feel about the Browns' impending sale to Tennessee businessman Jimmy Haslam. The Browns are a franchise that has been steadily decaying for the last decade. The root of that putrefaction has been Randy Lerner.

I don't have anything against the man personally, but I have come to greatly dislike the organization as helmed by Lerner since his father's death in 2002. A directionless, incompetently run, darkly comic joke of a franchise that is the official laughingstock of the NFL now that the Detroit Lions are a playoff team. 

Granted, it's not like Lerner  started the self-sustaining tire fire this is the Browns. He did not hire Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark. However, most every move Lerner has made during his tenure has thrown gas on the blaze, turning the Browns into a conflagration of disorder and organizational chaos filled with draft busts and off-the-field craziness.

It's not all Lerner's fault, of course, but the lack of accountability surrounding the Browns is a weight that has to fall squarely on the billionaire businessman's shoulders. It was evident Lerner could not handle the day-to-day strain of helming an NFL franchise, and was merely keeping the Browns out of respect to his father's legacy.

The Mike Holmgren hire was perhaps the biggest signal that Lerner preferred to stay in the background. Drafts appear to be better under Holmgren and new GM Tom Heckert, leaving Browns faithful with worries that a new owner means another round of wholesale changes for a team that has been anything but stable since 1999.

The timing of the sale, admittedly, is not ideal. There's a very good chance that Holmgren and Coach Pat Shurmur could be gone once Haslam gets here. The young Browns are going to be hard-pressed to win six games this season. What will it take to keep Shurmur from getting deep-sixed? If the Browns go 6-10 and yet show progress on offense, will that be enough to keep him on the sidelines? Would a new team president and new coach mean a new offensive philosophy shunting aside the one that was only just implemented?

These are serious questions, but they're also short-sighted. Some scant hope that the Browns are moving in the right direction is far removed from actually seeing progress on the field. All we have right now is hope for a regime that has won nine games over the past couple of seasons. What exactly are we trying to save here if Haslam wants to plug in a couple of his own people?

We all want the Browns to have the stability the Steelers have enjoyed for decades. That was not going to happen under Lerner's ownership. Holmgren would have been gone in two or three years and, new owner or not, a bad season will end Shurmur's reign regardless of who is signing the checks.

Little is known about how Haslam will be as an owner. He may stalk the sidelines like Jerry Jones or take a page from his minority ownership with the Steelers and offer a more conservative approach. He's a 60-year-old man who calls himself "Jimmy" (which reminds me of the foul-mouthed Houston Astros executives from "Seinfeld" every time I hear it) and seems the type of blue-jeans clad, good old boy Southern multi-millionaire who flips the burgers at BBQs himself and will match you beer for beer in the process. Haslam could be a great owner with pockets as deep as Randy's but with a football acumen far greater than the reluctant introvert we've seen flitting in and out of Berea over the last decade.

The Browns are an organization in need of down-at-the-roots change. No more snipping branches here and there praying something better will emerge. Ten seasons with 10 losses or more, not a single playoff game at Cleveland Browns Stadium, constant instability and off-the-field chaos: These are the unfortunate legacies left behind by the Lerners, Randy included. It's past time for someone else to get a shot at growing a franchise that was once so strong.